Philippe Jaroussky & Concerto Cologne at Barbican Hall

Solomon – The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
J. C. Bach
Artaserse – No, che non ha la sorte … Vo solcando un mar crudele
Tolomeo, re di Egitto – Inumano fratel … Stille amare
Water Music – Suite No.1
J. C. Bach
Carattaco – Perfida Cartismandua! … Fra l’orrore
Alcina – Sta nell’Ircana
J. C. Bach
Adriano in Siria – Cara, la dolce fiamma
Harpsichord Concerto in F minor
Ariodante – Scherza, infida
J. C. Bach
Temistocle – Ch’io parta? … Ma pensa

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor)

Concerto Cologne
Nicolau de Figueiredo (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 2 December, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Philippe Jaroussky. Photograph: Simon Fowler/Virgin ClassicsI do not pretend that I eagerly scan concert schedules seeking recitals by countertenors. I accept the role of this voice-type as a solution to the problem of performing operas of the eighteenth-century which originally had leading roles for castratos. I am even prepared to acknowledge that they may bring a new perspective to the delivery of other areas of the repertoire such as nineteenth-century art-song (in an intimate environment). Contemporary works which calculatedly employ the particular sonority of the countertenor are also all right by me (Britten’s casting of Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a wholly successful example). I have no issue with the coloratura skills of contemporary virtuoso countertenors and understand how this obviates the need for the jarring sight of a woman playing a man’s role in repertoire such as the Handel operas.

I cannot, however, avoid the conclusion that the countertenor voice is and will always be limited in size and volume. In replacing the castrato the sound may be right (though we have only verbal accounts to go on) but the power also attested to by those who wrote at the time certainly is not equalled by his modern substitute. Despite these reservations, this recital by Philippe Jaroussky gave me much pleasure.

As is now the trend, there was a tie-in with the singer’s latest release, of forgotten arias for castrato by Johann Christian Bach, who was once better known and esteemed than his father Johann Sebastian. J. C. Bach’s operatic compositions in the 1760s and 1770s in Italy, England and Germany were received with much the same acclaim as those of Handel, in whose footsteps he followed in Georgian England. Jaroussky’s advocacy of the younger Bach’s operas lacked nothing for either commitment or vocal prowess. He burst straight away in his opening recitative into Arbace’s powerful inventory of misfortunes, showing a clarity of enunciation and a detailed response to words which were to be a feature of his communication all evening. In the aria, whose imagery casts him as a sailor adrift in a storm, Jaroussky’s technical ability allowed him to negotiate sure-footedly bursts of coloratura, wide intervals and a high-lying cadenza. Caractacus’s aria from “Caratacco” was in contrasting mournful vein. From the varied sections of the aria radiated the impression of the beauty of sound at the top of the singer’s voice. Incidental details were part of a consistently moving sincerity, musically contained in long phrases.

The thought had already stolen into my mind that Jaroussky is less of a countertenor and more of a male soprano, in the manner of the American Randall Wong or the Ukrainian Yuriy Minenko (finalist in “Cardiff Singer of the World” this year). In his resumption after the interval the impression solidified. He began the love song ‘Cara, la dolce fiamma’ with a sustained note of an ethereal beauty which a lyric soprano of the utmost radiance would have been challenged to match. The note stole in above the orchestra so stealthily that I was unsure for several beats of its existence or origin. The aria itself, long and indulgent, rewarded Jaroussky’s legato and his inventive embellishments, the da capo section being, if anything, even more magical than the first statement and rounded off with a delicate cadenza.

The last Bach piece attempted to mitigate a commonplace melody with orchestral bravura. But by this time it was clear that Johann Christian was not the neglected genius that Jaroussky’s crusade would have us believe. The arias are largely shapeless, the orchestral introductions promising more than the pieces delivered, the instrumental effects often independent of their contexts. I was reminded of some of Haydn’s operatic arias, so full of promise but which in the event go on too long and are dramatically anonymous.

So it was Handel who provided the musically integrated experiences and by far the most rigorously structured events in the vocal element of this programme. The da capo format seemed not so much monotonous as a valuable discipline. Ptolemy’s index of his oppressors may be as melodramatic as Bach’s Artaxerxes in their respective accompagnatas but how much more imaginative are the hammer-blows in the strings which underpin the words. The depiction of how Ptolemy feels the drops of poison spreading through his vital functions is no less inventive for being an illusion (he has swallowed nothing more sinister than a sleeping draught). Jaroussky brought warmth to his tone at the change of key as he welcomed what he believed to be escape from suffering and risked a daring piano as consciousness ebbed.

After the mournful concentration of “Tolomeo”, exhilarating release came with Ruggiero’s aria from Act Three of “Alcina”, frequently recorded by virtuoso mezzo-sopranos. Jaroussky’s fast divisions were faultless, as was the playing of the ever-present horns, especially when singer and instrumentalists came together in dialogue. He clearly revelled in his elaborate cadenza.

The virtuoso instrument showcased and suitably fêted in ‘Scherza, infida’ was the bassoon, whose powerfully swelling sustained notes were as noteworthy as the deft passagework. The insistent, resolute string figures also contributed to the depiction of a character in this case of strong will. Jaroussky, who throughout had offered much more than hollow display, skilfully balanced self-pity with powerful resentment at his betrayal; his decorations to the vocal line were not only musically electric but very much in character.

Concerto Cologne, with the players of higher strings and wind standing in eighteenth-century style, and taking great care over individual tuning, were directed from the harpsichord by Nicolau de Figueiredo, who was also soloist in a Concerto in F minor by J. C. Bach, a rather grim piece which presented problems in this auditorium and which could have been profitably dispensed with; its inclusion was presumably motivated by the desire to balance the two composers and to give Jaroussky a rest. This fine band’s approach to Handel’s writing for instrumental ensemble was demonstrated by its distinctive treatment of a suite from Water Music, including long-breathed phrasing from two superlative oboists.

The musicians received a standing ovation, further enhanced by a breathtaking ‘Venti turbini’ from Handel’s “Rinaldo” as one of the encores. The Barbican Centre once more advanced its status as London’s home for supreme performers of pre-classical music.

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