International Women’s Day was marked in fine style as Ruby Hughes investigated repertoire depicting women centre-stage, either as Renaissance composers or as dramatic heroines. The programme of song was interspersed with instrumental pieces for theorbo and cello.
Jonas Nordberg opened with Toccata Arpeggiata by Kapsberger, a gorgeous expansive meditation on the familiar pattern, centuries before Philip Glass. There was much sighing and lamenting throughout Hughes’s choices, one of the most beautiful examples being a Purcell aria from Bonduca (Boadicea), presented with melancholy verve. Hughes’s rich soprano has deepened and has a middle range with body and penetration, but her upper voice has a raw edge which the dry acoustic accentuated.
The Italian repertoire suited her better. ‘Lasciatemi qui solo’ by Francesca Caccini, a beautiful and plangent meditation, reminiscent of ‘Arianna’s Lament’ (Monteverdi), highlighted Hughes’s purity of tone and absence of vibrato. Barbara Strozzi’s arias are increasingly performed, especially ‘L’Eraclito amoroso’ in which poetry of despair meets music of intense emotion, the vocal effects including sobs and sighs, Hughes completely at home.
The cello threatened to overwhelm the delicate theorbo on occasion, but Mime Yamahiro-Brinkmann’s energetic rendition of Vivaldi’s G-minor Cello Sonata (RV 42) brought whoops of delight, its four movements scattered between vocal numbers. ‘Dido’s Lament’ was impeccably performed by the trio, its agonies exposed with subtlety. The ballad from Othello, ‘Willow Song’ (Anonymous Jacobean) closed the first half – tragic and haunting – and, finally, ‘O death rock me asleep’ (attributed to Anne Boleyn) emphasised the prevailing atmosphere of dark fate.