It is not often you find Monteverdi and Stravinsky snuggled side-by-side on the same programme, but that was exactly what was packed into the latest instalment of The Bostridge Project: ‘Ancient and Modern’ series at the Wigmore Hall. Joined by mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, the English Concert (directed by Harry Bicket) and a number of different guest singers and instrumentalists, Ian Bostridge constructed a programme set to be a feast of the old and new combined, a mix of musical offerings from madrigals to cantatas from the 1590s to the 1950s.
The programme began with Biagio Marini’s Passacaglio, an instrumental item as an overture to a predominantly vocal concert. The harmonies melded together mellifluously and the orchestra had a wonderful sense of togetherness, though the more repetitive sections were a little unimaginative in interpretation, and failed to ignite with the fire and vibrancy normally expected of the Italian Baroque. Nevertheless, the group’s tone was well balanced and the piece came across stylishly. The Passacaglio segued immediately into the Monteverdi Tempro la cetra, a madrigal telling the story of a singer’s internal struggle between concentrating on war and being distracted by the pull of love. The piece was interpreted with admirable breadth by the instrumentalists and Bostridge alike, with only occasional lapses in ornamental control marring an otherwise engaging performance.
To finish the first half was Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a quasi-operatic work telling the story of a knight who inadvertently kills his lover when the two meet in battle. The orchestra really came into its own with its programmatic offerings: the steps of the warriors burned with rage as the story came alive in the mouths of its narrators, Bostridge and Kirchschlager, who divided and shared the role between them, their performances equally committed and dramatic. But despite an accomplished pair of narrators, the real stars of the piece were soprano Julia Doyle and tenor Matthew Long, who sang as Clorinda and Tancredi respectively – while their roles were brief, each had a startling clarity of tone and diction which cut through the orchestral accompaniment beautifully. Their performances spoke for themselves in a ‘no-frills’ approach which was refreshingly simple and self-assured.
After the interval came a set of three madrigals by Gesualdo. The Italian composer was something of an intriguing figure himself, renowned for murdering his wife and her lover in a crime of passion, and indeed, this passion comes across in his music: the madrigals themselves have an incredible richness in chromaticism, the music as gripping and tortured as their composer’s background would imply. Not only that, but this performance was commendable – the wrenching dissonances were tensed and resolved deliciously by the singers, and the pared-back accompaniment (only a cello and theorbo, and not the entire English Concert) was tasteful and immaculate, proving that a simple continuo well done can be just as powerful as all the forces of an orchestra combined.
Then came the final item: the Stravinsky Cantata. Following his success in setting English lyrics in The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky decided to try his hand at setting English words once again, this time in a non-dramatic setting, and so having collected samples of old English poetry he deemed particularly beautiful and inspirational, he set and structured the work accordingly in his Cantata. Bostridge’s warm, ringing vibrato and Kirchschlager’s powerful, rich sonority meant that both singers were in their element in this work; furthermore, the chorus was chillingly haunting and melancholy, the instrumentalists bold and pure in tone.
But despite a wonderful performance of the Stravinsky from all parties, there was just something completely jarring and unsettling about having sat through a whole programme of Italian Baroque to be shunted into the world of a mid-20th-century Anglo-Russian piece (albeit one inspired by 16th-century poetry). The idea was a well founded one: amalgamating old and new can be a great way to bring a fresh look to old music or to remind us where the more modern classics have evolved from, and the theoretical logic behind the choice of pieces was completely understandable. It is just a shame that not a single instrumentalist was carried across from the English Concert to the Stravinsky, which made the two sections feel like completely separate concerts: having few adjoining musicians and only a tenuously shared stylistic source of inspiration for the chosen items meant that rather than a glorious mix of old and new, the audience were left with a cut-and-shut programme with very little musical cohesion, which seems rather unfortunate given the general quality of the evening’s performances.
Wigmore Hall36 Wigmore Street
London Greater London United Kingdom W1U 2BP