Italian Songs & Arias
Sara Mingardo (contralto), Benjamin Bayl (harpsichord) & Richard Sweeney (theorbo)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 31 October, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This selection of Italian songs and arias, performed largely in a chronological order, was the ideal vehicle for Sara Mingardo’s voice. A natural contralto is something of a rarity, and Mingardo possesses quite remarkable control, especially in the lower range, yet is able to combine that with relatively uninhibited singing at climax points. As a result this music was captivating from first note to last.
It helped that the accompaniment was complementary both to the timbre of her voice and also to the mood of each number. Richard Sweeney’s theorbo was ideal for the more intimate asides, lending a mellow tone, while Benjamin Bayl’s harpsichord provided focus in the faster numbers, of which there were few. For Niccolo Piccinni’s recitative and aria, Se il ciel mi divide, this was troublesome, since the reduction from orchestra to harpsichord was congested, the rhythm often chugging as a result. Mingardo’s ringing refrain was the ample compensation, however. The Piccinni followed a striking aria from Handel’s Alcina, Mingardo’s vivid word-painting in the lower register expressing outright tragedy.
Mingardo’s recital opened with Falconieri’s Bella porta di rubini, a song published in 1619, and her mellifluous tones were ideal for the hymn-like writing. In songs by Lotti and Caldara, Mingardo demonstrated quite tight vibrato, while the high part of Il mio bel foco … Quella fiamma che m’accende, attributed to Benedetto Marcello, formed a striking climax.
Richard Sweeney gave a commendably unhurried Toccata, Piccinni’s response to the form, not overtly virtuosic but nicely paced and articulate especially towards the end, where the music became more intricate. There was an imposter in the shape of Parisotti’s Se tu m’ami (1886), sneaked into his “Arie antiche” publications for Ricordi as a genuine item when it was a pastiche. Mingardo again blossomed in response to the text, as she did with the closing aria, the graceful ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ from Paisiello’s La bella Molinara, a blend of elegance and comedy.
As an encore the three gave Monteverdi’s ‘Si Dolce e’l Tormento’, from ‘Scherzi musicali’ (1632). The distinctive refrain of this madrigal was simple yet moving.