In concert – City of London Sinfonia @ Southwark Cathedral: Origin: This is CLS

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Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova
Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis
The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks
Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova
Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter
A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener
The Hidden Face (1996)

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)

Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.

Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.

Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.

The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.

Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.

The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.

The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.

British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.

We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.

Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.

The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.

Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.

It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.

To read more about the City of London Sinfonia, visit their website – and for more on composers Dobrinka Tabakova and Edmund Finnis, click on their names

Wigmore Mondays: Roberta Invernizzi – Songs from the Early Italian Baroque

Roberta Invernizzi (soprano, above); Rodney Prada (viola da gamba), Craig Marchitelli (lute, baroque guitar), Franco Pavan (lute)

Caccini Dolcissimo sospiro (1601) (1:54-4:37), Dalla porta d’oriente (1614) (4:39-6:35)
Kapsberger Passacaglia (unknown) (6:45-10:38)
Monteverdi Ecco di dolci raggi (1623) (11:49-14:28), Disprezzata Regina from L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642-3) (14:29-19:25)
Bassani Toccata per B quadro (21:05-22:18)
Frescobaldi Canzone a basso solo (22:20-24:43)
Merula Folle è ben che si crede (1638) (24:58-27:40)
Rossi La bella più bella (27:53-30:42)
Kapsberger Toccata Arpeggiata (31:51-34:27)
D’India Intenerite voi, lagrime mie (1609) (34:56-, Cruda Amarilli (1609) (37:31-40:10)
Monteverdi Si dolce è’l tormento (1624) (41:22-43:33), Voglio di vita uscir (43:37-48:20)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If – like me – you know rather less about the music the Italian Baroque than you feel you would like to, this is a great place to start. In the course of a very nicely balanced concert of vocal and instrumental music, soprano Roberta Invernizzi showed off the extent of harmonic daring at work in the 17th century. She did so in a very unfussy way, her voice superbly controlled but also allowing herself plenty of room for expressive freedom, enhanced by gestures to the audience that spoke of nothing but pure involvement.

From left to right looking at the Wigmore Hall stage was the stylish trio in accompaniment – Rodney Prada, with the wonderful sound of his six-string viola da gamba (essentially an early cello), and then the lutenists Craig Marchitelli – a long time accompanist of Invernizzi – and Franco Pavan. They switched between lutes and baroque guitars.

The quartet began with the florid vocal display of Caccini‘s Dolcissimo sospiro (1:54 on the broadcast link), a wonderfully airy rendering, which gave way to the fluid dance of Dalla porta d’oriente (4:39). There followed a surprisingly introspective but harmonically rich Passacaglia from Girolamo Kapsberger (6:45), the lute and baroque guitar down in the lower regions but making an attractive, mellow sound in a superb account from Marchitelli and Pavan.

The flexibility of Invernizzi’s voice was immediately apparent at the start of Monteverdi’s madrigal Ecco di dolci raggi (11:49), a bright song with subtle pointing from the lute and guitar, the viola da gamba joining a little way in. A more dramatic text took hold at 12:55 to the open-stringed twang of the lute. Then at 14:29 we experienced a further dramatic turn, and a more obviously operatic setting for an aria from Monteverdi’s opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’, laden with dramatic tension, with both fret players transferring to theorbos (also a type of lute)

The Bassani Toccata (21:05) began with a lovely, throaty low melody on the viola da gamba, before the Frescobaldi Canzone arrived and took us through more dance-like sections, still in the lower range, and ending in the major key. Invenizzi returned for another beautifully uplifting song where purity of tone and well-judged vibrato mixed freely, Rossi’s La bella più bella a rapturous dance in her hands.

It is amazing how modern some very old music can sound sometimes (to use a huge generalisation!) but Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata (34:11- could almost be from a recent electronic musician, such is its inventiveness with harmony and texture within the lutes playing it. Although a display piece it also serves as an effective meditation, and the sounds of baroque guitar and lute were mesmerising in the hands of Marchitelli and Pavan.

Two madrigals from Sigismondo d’India followed (34:56), and there was suddenly a very serious tone to Invernizzi’s vocal. These two laments were deeply felt, and again deliberately strained against conventional harmonic resolution so that the tension was heightened throughout. The second, Cruda Amarilli (37:31) had the twang of the lute to accentuate its impact.

Finally we turned to Monteverdi and Si dolce è’l tormento (So sweet is the pain) (41:22), a song with higher notes of striking clarity. This was followed by the distinctive ‘hook’ applied to Voglio di vita uscir (I want to leave this life behind) (43:37), a song that despite its persuasive lilt had a dark side.

For a well-deserved encore, the four performers offered the Caccini song Amarilli mia bella (My Beautiful Amaryllis) (50:37-53:14), capping a performance that, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor remarked, gave ‘a masterclass in ornamentation’.

Further listening

The music from this concert – most of it available in recordings by Invernizzi herself – can be heard on the playlist below:

Invernizzi has completed a number of discs of Italian song, of which two are below – Songs from Early Baroque Italy:

and Music for Harp and Soprano in early Baroque Rome:

BBC Proms 2017 – I Fagiolini introduce Monteverdi to the Cadogan Hall

I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth (above) Photo (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Monteverdi Cruda Amarilli; Sfogava con le stele; Longe da te, cor mio; Possente spirto from Orfeo, Chiome d’oro, Vorrei baciarti, o Filli

Roderick Williams Là ci darem la mano (BBC commission: world premiere)

Monteverdi Laudate pueri Dominum a 5 (concertato); Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero

Cadogan Hall, Monday 17 July 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

As an introduction to the wide musical canon of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), there is surely no better place to start than with this vividly coloured concert from I Fagiolini and their quirky leader Robert Hollingworth.

They gave the Cadogan Hall – and BBC Radio 3 listeners – an insight into his daring harmonic world, showing just how keenly Monteverdi could respond to the challenges of word setting. They also showed how he could operate equally effectively in a reverent sacred setting, using the same imagination as in the wild and wonderful secular works.

Monteverdi, who was born 450 years ago to the year, is essentially a ‘Renaissance’ composer (the period running very roughly from 1400 to 1600) but he wrote in such an original way that even now his music sounds forward-looking.

The first trio of madrigals in this concert showed the composer’s skill with unaccompanied voices, and the clarity with which I Fagiolini could deliver them. Cruda Amarilli (from 2:14 on the broadcast link) Sfogava con le stele (5:17) and the darker Longe da te, cor mio (8:45) were all performed with the utmost clarity.

Monteverdi is also the acknowledged father of opera, with L’Orfeo (1607) the first example in the form. It is a remarkable work, and this lengthy excerpt (from 13:09 to 22:30) shows why. Tenor Matthew Long held his notes with impeccable control, but also showered them with the composer’s written embellishments, fluctuating the note ever so slightly to give extra expression. He was shadowed by violins (Rachel Podger and Kati Debretzeni) and cornetts (Gawain Glenton and Conor Hastings).

Back to the madrigals, and the seventh book Monteverdi published in Venice in 1613. Chiome d’oro (Golden tresses) (24:14) had an attractive introduction with the two violins dovetailed, a sign of things to come from the sopranos Anna Crookes and Ciara Hendrick, and their beautiful duet from 25:06. From 27:37-32:32 the spotlight changed to Hollingworth, whose nervous lover was characterised to perfection, and Kendrick, his intended. As the song progressed so he moved progressively closer to her, and by the end the two leaned in towards s kiss – a simple but extremely effective staging!

From 35:30-42:13 we heard a new work, Roderick Williams imaginatively setting Lorenzo da Ponte’s words used by Mozart in the famous Don Giovanni aria Là ci darem la mano, here set for a five-voice choir. Williams writes through the eyes and ears of Monteverdi and the results were intriguing and often laced with humour. In the middle he added a clever invention, the reading of a letter from Monteverdi while the singers tried to outdo each other in the background. The madrigal ended in a flurry of sexual tension.

Roderick Williams takes the applause with I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth after the world premiere of his interpretation of Là ci darem la mano.

Finally a pair of real wonders, a setting of Laudate pueri Dominum (from 44:33) and then an extended madrigal, Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero (52:42–1:03:13), designed for the praise of the Emperor in spite of the Thirty Years War. It is a mini-masterpiece, capped by the central dance (59:10) and its lilting rhythms begun by theorbo player Eligio Quinteiro. In these capable hands we enjoyed the complete purity of C major, beautifully spun by Monteverdi’s hand.

A wonderful concert, then, performed in the vivacious spirit that I Fagiolini bring to all their performances, celebrating the humour and quirky rhythms within the music, but bringing the seriousness of Monteverdi’s invention to play also. I urge you to hear it!

Ben Hogwood