thu 18/04/2024

Concerto 1700, L’Apothéose, St John's Smith Square review - rare Spanish treasures | reviews, news & interviews

Concerto 1700, L’Apothéose, St John's Smith Square review - rare Spanish treasures

Concerto 1700, L’Apothéose, St John's Smith Square review - rare Spanish treasures

Sophistication, and sensuality, from 18th-century Madrid

Move over Handel... Lucía CaihuelaYat Ho Tsang

Escapees from Eurovision in Westminster on Saturday night might have discovered that a continent-wide enthusiasm for crowd-pleasing international styles arose long before the age of glitzy pop. Two accomplished Spanish groups performed at St John’s Smith Square within this year’s London Festival of Baroque Music. Both came with an attractive, unfamiliar 18th-century repertoire from their homeland.

It showed that, across the decades from Handel to Haydn, the hegemonic sounds of Italy could be zestfully customised to suit national tastes. Within the tried-and-tested formulas for a Euro hit, local – and individual – voices still found the space to flourish. 

In the first of two concerts, Concerto 1700 played string trios from the time of the Spanish Enlightenment in the second half of the 18th century. Later, the ensemble L’Apothéose, fronted by soprano Lucía Caihuela, went back a generation with a selection of numbers from the operas and oratorios that had wowed Madrid during the period when Handel ruled the aisles in London. In many cases, the Italian colouring came from imported court musicians themselves – the Spanish crown then governed southern Italy through the Kingdom of Naples. 

Concerto 1700 (pictured above by Noah Shaye) is directed by violinist Daniel Pinteño, with fellow-fiddler Fumiko Morie and cellist Ester Domingo. They energetically mixed trios by the Madrid-based Luigi Boccherini and his fellow-expatriate Cayetano (Gaetano) Brunetti with works from the Navarrese composer, José Castel. Period-instrument specialists, the three mutually-attentive performers nicely blended courtliness with a touch of rusticity in Castel’s G minor and E-flat major trios. They managed to fortify these pieces’ smooth prettiness with rhythmic urgency and some crunchy ensemble playing. Pinteño’s solo passagework shone, while Domingo’s robust, flavoursome cello truly came into its own in Boccherini’s G major trio – composed by a star cellist himself. 

Here daintiness vied with earthiness. The spirit of the dance pushed bracingly through a façade of courtly suavity. To conclude, Brunetti’s trio – enhanced by springy rhythms and suspenseful pauses – spanned both Handelian serenity in its brooding “larghetto”, and Vivaldian brio in the allegros, with some droll bird calls on the lead violin to enrich the mix. Created at a time when the Spanish court aimed to display its advanced, European sophistication, this urbane music might have dwindled into well-mannered gentility. But Concerto 1700 lent it an uplifting vernacular bite with playing that located elements of lilt, drive, and even occasional spikiness, behind the well-polished veneer. 

With nine pieces selected from works of the 1720s to 1740s, L’Apothéose (pictured above) iintroduced us to the lyric stage of high-society Madrid in the epoch when Handel made Italian opera big business in the West End. Indeed, the two capitals competed: superstar castrato Farinelli moved from London to Madrid, where from the 1730s the royal Buen Retiro theatre played a Covent Garden-like role. The group, with Lucía Caihuela’s richly expressive, mezzo-tinted soprano partnered by two violins, baroque flute, cello and harpsichord, will have reminded Handel fans at every turn both of all that these composers shared with him – and how local conditions allowed them to differ. A cantada by Francisco Corselli – another transplanted Italian – showcased the range, heft and agility of Caihuela’s voice. It also announced the first of several beautifully deft but grainy, well-seasoned flute solos by Laura Quesada. They proved a highlight of the evening as Quesada supplied the second “voice”, a fine foil and complement to Caihuela. Corselli’s sacred piece Regina caeli laetare boasted some lushly operatic runs and a stirring “Alleluia”, while the instrumental “Symphony” from an oratorio by José de San Juan bounced along in a gigue-like dance. 

However, it was Caihuela’s succession of recitative-plus-aria extracts from Madrid operas othat made the night’s most joyful noise. With her dramatic phrasing and vocal chiaroscuro balanced by the tough sweetness of Quesada’s flute, the aria from Jaime (Giacopo) Facco’s The Amazons of Spain proved a show-stopper that any Handel diva might have slain to deliver. Gutsy and spirited, but with moments of tender reflection and refined ornamentation, Caihuela sang with hugely appealing freshness and vigour. 

In the numbers by José de Nebra, a stronger, rhythmically distinctive, Spanish tinge begins to modify the musical lingua franca of the 18th-century opera house. Nebra, a prolific, popular theatre composer before he joined the royal chapel, surely deserves to be better known here. Caihuela’s aria from his Amor aumenta el valor had a sultry cheek and sensuous defiance that might have belonged to some prototype Carmen (OK: French, I know, but still…). And, by the time of the stomping, bouncing encore with its fandango flavour, we had left the constrained politeness of musical etiquette at the Madrid court far behind. Asís Márquez’s harpsichord anchored some tight accompaniments that – with Victor Martínez’s and Marta Mayoral’s violins, and Carla Sanfélix’s cello – neatly offset the starring roles of voice and flute. This journey to Spain revealed musical territory full of rare delights. I’ll hope for a return trip very soon. 

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