First I must apologise for the recent hiatus in my posting. For the last few weeks life has been little more than an extraordinary barrage of events that finally came to a head this week in surreal but glorious fashion. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Now it’s all over and I can slowly get back into my normal rhythm again. There are lots of things that have been going on which I’d love to share with you in due course. And I’m going to kick off with the most recent and the most exhilarating.
As you’ll remember, I began my Baroque concert-going career in fine style back in September with Franco Fagioli’s epic Porpora recital at the Wigmore Hall; and last night, in the same venue, I had the privilege to hear another stellar voice from Team Artaserse. This time it was the guiding genius behind not only that opera but Alessandro, Tamerlano, Siroë and many other exciting recent revivals: the versatile Max Cencic.
For those readers who aren’t Baroque geeks, I should give a bit of background so you realise what a remarkable character Cencic is. He’s been performing since the age of six, progressing from singing lead soprano in the Vienna Boys’ Choir to touring in his late teens as an independent soprano. There was a slight shift down the register in his early twenties to mezzo-soprano and, more recently, he’s developed a broader range with gorgeously rich, dark low notes. You’ve come across him before in these posts several times, singing the dazzling, fiery female role of Mandane in Artaserse, the elegant Sposa in Sant’ Alessio, and the put-upon Ottone in Poppea. He’s also sung a fabulously febrile, unstable Nerone in another Poppea. In all his roles he displays absolute class: sheer professionalism coupled with sensitivity and grace, and a voice which (depending on the role) can be beguilingly feminine as well as commandingly imperious. Last night he was accompanied by the sparky young ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by the gloriously energetic violinist Riccardo Minasi.
We started, as seems to be traditional, with an instrumental piece in the form of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for violin. I rapidly began to realise exactly how impressive Il Pomo d’Oro are: I have friends who are very enthusiastic about them but, as someone whose interest is very much on the vocal side of things, I hadn’t been sure that I would be able to understand their brilliance. Usually I’m guilty of treating orchestras as simply the backing group for the singer. Tonight, however, that changed completely. I got a wonderful sense of the synergy of the relationship and I’ve come away with a great deal of fondness for this lively young band. The concerto was performed with energy and verve with Minasi himself as soloist, leading his ensemble through a terrifically jaunty first part, with some amazingly dexterous fingering on the violin, followed by a hauntingly beautiful and gorgeously controlled middle section, and rounded off with a perky third part. It was the perfect way to start.
The Hall then crackled with expectation as we waited for the door at the back of the stage to open: for me, that moment of anticipation is always delicious, as I wait for one of the singers whom I’ve been listening to for the last few months to step off the cover of a CD and out onto the stage in front of me. My companions and I (fagiolisti in September and now, I suppose, cencicisti) had been wondering beforehand what Cencic might be wearing, as he has a certain sartorial reputation to keep up, and he didn’t disappoint, emerging resplendent in a fabulous red-and-gold jacket covered in Baroque acanthus patterns.
Cencic opened with Pianta bella, Albinoni’s lament for Apollo from Il nascimento dell’ Aurora. This has always been one of my favourite pieces on the Venezia album and tonight he performed it with melting beauty. In this case, as in many of the other arias, he exploited the deeper ranges of his voice, which seems to have grown even richer since he recorded the album in 2013. This very elegant beginning was followed by the more energetic Barbaro, non comprendo from Caldara’s Adriano in Siria, and if I explain that this is an aria sung by the Emperor Hadrian, you’ll understand part of the reason why it makes me so happy. It’s a stupendous piece and Cencic was ravishing, starting at a fairly low pitch but working up a level with every repetition and throwing in phenomenal, bubbling coloratura (indeed, the coloratura impressed me so much that I’ve mentioned it twice in my typically excitable notes scrawled over the programme).
After this there was another instrumental piece: Brescianello’s Sinfonia in F, which was sparkly and elegant in the first part, followed by a sedate and graceful middle section full of trembling violins, and then back to an energetic conclusion. The verve with which Il Pomo d’Oro play is truly remarkable: they’re practically fizzing over with glee as they perform. Cencic returned to the stage to sing Dolce mio ben from Gasparini’s opera Flavio Anicio Olibrio, which was a piece of such mournful, exquisitely controlled beauty that it almost brought tears to my eyes. Again we had those sumptuous low notes which show off the texture of his voice, like the burr around a drypoint line or the nap on a piece of velvet. It was so lovely that I actually sighed at the end.
And this led into another bravura piece: Vivaldi’s Mi vuoi tradir from La verità in cimento. As is amply demonstrated by Artaserse, Cencic is extremely good at ‘angry’ arias and this piece was elaborated with insane runs of notes and rich elaboration: the perfect contrast to the more romantic, slower pieces which made up much of the programme. He is remarkable precisely because he can do the dramatic bravura arias and the gentler, more introspective pieces equally well: there might be singers who can compete on either the flamboyant pieces or the seraphically divine, but I’ve yet to hear anyone who is as strong across the board.
After the interval, we found ourselves treated to two slower, more stately pieces which lulled us into a slightly false sense of security before the splendour that followed. First we had Baldassare Galuppi’s Concerto a quattro No. 1 in G minor, whose refined, delicate opening led into a smoothly elegant middle section and rounded off with a gorgeous whirl of violins. Cencic then joined Il Pomo d’Oro to sing Giovanni Porta’s Mormorando quelle fronde from La costanza combattuta in dimore. This is a beautiful piece but quite low-key and even on the album it feels like a way to let the listener recover slightly from the glamour of the other arias: there were lots of rippling lower notes and it felt slightly like sophisticated downtime.
It gave us a chance to catch our breath before the aria which turned out to be the showpiece of the evening: Geminiano Giacomelli’s Sposa, non mi conosci from Merope. This was simply electrifying. Cencic had been quite restrained in his performance until this point, but this aria for the vengeful son Epitide was performed with such passion and power that it left me breathless. It began as a delicately grief-stricken piece, but swiftly progressed into an expression of raw, almost unbearable anguish, culminating with a high note of such ringing clarity and brilliance that it took your heart up with it and left you choked. Indeed, I was in such an emotional tumult afterwards that to my shame I missed half the first section of the following Concerto in E minor by Vivaldi (Il favorito). Once I caught up, I enjoyed more divinely dexterous playing from Minasi who, after a haunting middle section, plunged with gusto into a simply joyous conclusion, practically romping around the stage to the delight of the audience.
Cencic then came back for the final section, to sing A piedi miei svenato, a commanding and dramatic piece from Vivaldi’s Argippo and closed with one of the Venezia album’s highlights: the deliciously elaborate Anche in mezzo aperigliosa from Vivaldi’s L’odio vinto dalla costanza. Full of tripplingly ornamented runs of notes, this was a real treat to finish. However, despite his phenomenal singing (and the jacket) Cencic was slightly in danger of being overshadowed at this point by Minasi, who went gloriously berserk on stage, pushing along the pace of the aria to breakneck speed.
The audience was slightly better behaved than they were at the Fagioli concert, with less excitable whooping – this seemed to be an elegant Wigmore crowd rather than the so-called ‘groupies’ who enlivened the Hall in September – but the reception was nevertheless very warm and enthusiastic. There were two encores, both Hasse. I missed what the first one was and, although I meant to ask Cencic afterwards, I forgot, so if anyone knows, please tell me, because it was splendid. It offered a taste of a more showy sensibility which was in a slightly different spirit to the Venetian grandeur we’d been treated to for the rest of the evening. The second encore was Hasse’s Vo disperato a morte from Tito Vespasiano, which is something of Cencic’s trademark at the moment: not only did he perform it gorgeously on his recent Rokoko CD, but he added it in to the production of Hasse’s Siroë, which he has just designed, directed and starred in to almost universal acclaim at Versailles (and which I profoundly wish I’d been able to see).
I consider myself truly blessed that, so soon after discovering this wonderful genre, I’ve had the chance to see arguably the two greatest living operatic countertenors live in London. (If only I’d been able to get a ticket for Jaroussky last Monday, I could have ticked another off the list as well, but that concert was sold out as long ago as August.) With Fagioli so fresh in my mind, I found it rather interesting to compare Cencic’s style of performance to his: they have strikingly different ‘personalities’ as singers. Fagioli’s gleeful exuberance comes through even in his interaction with his audience, whereas Cencic is a much more poised, reserved and self-contained performer (which surprised me, considering his flamboyant fashion sense), often keeping his eyes downcast on his music. But he is phenomenally elegant and we were treated to a catalogue of wonderful Baroque gestures, some of which took me straight back to Artaserse and made me very happy. My one regret is that, having made his first entrance in that dramatic jacket, Cencic didn’t then turn up in a different jacket every time he came back on stage. I heard several people laughingly expressing the same regret throughout the course of the evening. It could have been not only an intoxicating vocal extravaganza but also an introduction to the riches of the Cencic wardrobe. Maybe next time.
But that will be some distance away. For my non-barocchisti readers, you have a bit of a break from the Baroque for the time being (once I’ve caught up with my outstanding posts). From now on we have a couple of months of countertenor downtime, until February and the much anticipated Farinelli and the King with Iestyn Davies at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. (Well, barring any DVDs or albums I might happen to buy or be given for Christmas, of course…)