Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Emma Kirkby & London Baroque / Review

with London Baroque
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (4 April 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 April 2009.

The English soprano Emma Kirkby, blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in all of music, made her Singapore debut in a programme of mostly George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). To be more precise, the recital captured the years 1707 and 1708, when the young German lived in Rome as the guest of Marquis Ruspoli, the patron for whom all three varied cantatas performed were written.

This was much before Handel’s (left) fame as composer of opera and oratorios, but the seeds of future genius had already been sown. The secular cantata Notte Placida e Cheta (Calm And Quiet Night) conjured a mood of mystery, of dreams and love. Kirkby’s intimate, rosy and youthful voice, with purity of conception and crystal-clear diction, fully captured its nuances of quiet elation amidst contemplation.

The vocal range demanded in early music is seemingly narrower, but Kirkby projected an enormous range of emotions - from sorrow to joy and much in between - through subtle colouring and varying of shades. In the sacred cantata O Qualis de Coelo Sonus (What Is This Heavenly Sound?), there was even opportunity for brilliance, in its dizzying runs and the celebratory gigue-like Alleluia!

Sacred or secular, all this contrived to make music from the classical and romantic periods sound vulgar by comparison. Between cantatas and as a palate-cleanser, the immaculate London Baroque (left) – violinists Ingrid Seifert and Richard Gwilt, viol-player Charles Medlam and harspichordist Steve Devine – performed trio sonatas by Corelli, Bach and Handel.

The final cantata Tu Fedel? Tu Constante? (Are You Faithful?) was a feisty affair, with Kirkby’s protagonist in accusatory mode, questioning her lover on his fidelity. Its bustling minor key strains strengthened her steely resolve with each admonishment, before a resolution in a triumphantly major mode. The woman dumps her man for a better man and life, ending with a wry smile from the singer. Women’s lib was by no means a 20th century affair.

Two short encores in English – by Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne – brought the evening’s offerings to a sublime conclusion. Kirkby is as close to having heard the voice of an angel from heaven.

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