(Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle, with Orfeo 55 and Nathalie Stutzmann, 4 June 2015)
In early June, all Baroque roads lead to Halle in Saxony-Anhalt, which holds an annual Handel festival in honour of its most famous son. As a Londoner by adoption, I confess to a slight sense of possessiveness over Handel, who moved away from Halle at the age of eighteen (as opposed to the 47 years he spent living and working in London), but I suppose we can share him. And it is true that Halle’s festival feels considerably sleeker and higher-profile than London’s equivalent earlier this year: there are posters and banners everywhere; every performance was packed with people; and the programme featured a positive galaxy of international Baroque talent.
And so I’d come all the way to Germany so that, in the course of one long weekend, I could see no fewer than seven countertenors, including four absolutely top-flight singers: Philippe Jaroussky, Max Cencic, Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata. We kicked off only a couple of hours after our arrival in Halle, bristling with anticipation in the aptly-named Händel Halle as we waited for Jaroussky’s festival concert to begin. It’s an event which had special resonance because it included the presentation to him of this year’s Handel Prize. He was accompanied by the ensemble Orfeo 55, founded and conducted by the multi-talented Nathalie Stutzmann and the recital turned out to be quite a treat for several reasons – not least because virtually all the programme was unfamiliar to me, having been drawn largely from from the operas Deidamia (1741) and Arianna in Creta (1734) and the serenate Parnasso in festa (1734) and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708).
We began with the Sinfonia from Act 3 of Rinaldo (1731), its stately pace gradually giving way to a livelier rhythm rising from within. It was the perfect introduction. Jaroussky made his first appearance with Apollo’s aria in praise of Jupiter, Gran tonante, from Parnasso in festa, with its gorgeously swelling opening that has a hint of Zadok the Priest about it. It was my first experience of hearing Jaroussky’s voice live and, at least in this first aria, it came across as poised and delicate but a little on the faint side. Nevertheless his command of coloratura was impressive, as was his breath control – those pure messa di voce notes are his absolute strong point.
Another instrumental piece followed, this time the beautiful Allegro and Adagio from Handel’s Concerto grosso in G Major. I’m afraid I am really not very good at talking about instrumental music, but I was impressed with the way that the entire programme was arranged. Not only did it flow well, but it was very intelligently balanced to offer a variety of moods. And I found Stutzmann’s conducting fascinating to watch. She’s a true master at it, shifting the pace from brisk and bouncy to languidly slow, with long and sweeping legato lines.
Jaroussky came back with Orfeo’s accompanied recitative Dopo d’aver perduto and aria Ho perso il caro ben from Parnasso. This was much more to my taste. He sang with passion and technical excellence, and there were some more powerful notes; but always underlaid by that same sense of delicacy and clarity. Again I admired his ability to hold those very light, almost shimmering lines. (I noted that this aria sounded a little like Son nata a lagrimar; that made me smile later.) By the end, having gone through all the shades of loss, Jaroussky looked utterly forlorn and, as he sank back into his chair, I suspect I wasn’t the only person in the hall who wanted to give him a hug. While he recovered, Orfeo 55 played the Musette and Larghetto from the Concerto grosso in G Minor, with refreshing switches from languor to liveliness.
Next up, Jaroussky returned to the theme of parting with Ulisse’s aria Perdere il bene amato from Deidamia. For me, this was probably the least successful aria of the evening due to the B section (‘Furore disperato!‘), which required Jaroussky to turn on the flash and fire. Furore isn’t his strong point and he came across instead as sounding merely rather vexed, although he immediately redeemed himself with a masterfully delicate messa di voce in the da capo section on ‘Pedere il bene amato‘. We then had another instrumental break with the lovely Largo and Allegro from the Concerto grosso in B Major, before returning to Ulisse: this time the aria No, quella beltà non amo. Jaroussky tackled the striding rhythm and almost immediate plunge into formidable coloratura very well: it was great fun with a little bit of swagger to it. It’s also a very funny aria because Ulisse dismisses Deidamia’s girlish beauty in favour of that of her friend Pyrrha – amusing, because Pyrrha is the young Achilles disguised as a girl and hidden among Deidamia and her sisters.
If the first half had been enjoyable, the second half turned out to be a stunner. We started off with Aci’s aria Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, which felt similar to one of those nightingale arias. A throaty, tantalising oboe melody suggested the warbling of a bird, twining in and out of Jaroussky’s voice. Once again he shone at those very fine lifting threads of melody which he carried up, swelling as they rose, or gently allowed to sweep down the scale. But the most striking moment for me was the da capo – the lingering on ‘lieto’ and ‘vola’ followed by an extraordinary handling of the ‘ca-‘ in ‘canto’, which became a fluttering long note of sublime grace. I swiftly decided that if I am ever prescribed singing as a cure for melancholy, something like this would be high on the list. In fact, I decided that I’d probably had my favourite part of the programme and settled back to enjoy the rest without any further expectations. This was foolish.
As the orchestra took over for the overture to the Concerto grosso in D minor, Jaroussky simply turned his back to the audience and stood watching them. At the end of this grand and monumental piece, we were due for another of Aci’s arias, but first there was a recitativo for Polifemo, Or poiché sordi sono. And, when the solitary theorbo was suddenly joined by a voice, an almost electric shock ran through me – as through most of the audience. This gorgeously deep, dark, spicy voice couldn’t possibly be Jaroussky. And then, slowly, Stutzmann turned around.*
I don’t have the words to describe her voice: she’s one of those singers who makes a powerful impact when heard in person. Rich and earthy and full of shifting shadows, her voice offered a counterbalance to Jaroussky’s seraphic tones and Stutzmann ended her recitativo by pushing down her range as far as it would go – further, interestingly, than virtually all the countertenors we’ve heard to date, sweeping down almost into baritone. The hall was open-mouthed. And then, after this amazingly deep woman’s voice, Jaroussky suddenly cut in for his heart-rending aria Verso gia l’alma, his voice like a crystal knife cutting velvet (it sounded so incongruous that there was some guilty giggling in the audience). The way they played it was remarkable, simply electrifying.
I’ll be completely frank, I was so impressed by this that I perhaps didn’t concentrate on the rest of the programme as much as I should have done. We had another orchestral section to give us time to gather our wits, this time the Allegro from the Concerto grosso in A minor, and then we moved onto Arianna in Creta with Teseo’s aria Sol ristoro di mortali, with its gentle mournfulness. When Jaroussky finished singing, he closed his eyes and stood in silence as Stutzmann sang a little piece of recitativo (I’m not quite sure how it fits in because it isn’t mentioned in the programme).
He remained standing, eyes shut in pain or contemplation, as the orchestra turned to the Largo from the Concerto grosso in B major, with a haunting rise and fall of cellos and, once again, the lonely and slightly eerie cry of the oboe. I don’t know what this piece is meant to mean, but to me it suggested the clearing of skies after a storm, or sunrise; it cleared the air ready for the final piece, Teseo’s aria Qui ti sfido, o mostro infame! This was driving me mad because I knew the aria so well but I’ve never listened to Arianna; I’ve just realised that it appears on Jaroussky’s Carestini CD, so that explains why it’s so familiar. Here, in his closing piece, he was channelling the kind of earnest, starry-eyed young hero he does so well, and it was a very enjoyable conclusion.
Naturally there was rapturous applause (I note that German audiences don’t really get going until the third curtain call. I also note, to my glee, that it is perfectly acceptable for grown adults to drum their feet energetically on the floor during applause). Our first encore was an aria from The Choice of Hercules, which I don’t know at all, and which I shall have to look up; the second was another aria for Teseo, but this time from the opera Teseo itself. And then – after the speeches and the presentation of the Handel Prize – we had one final, completely wonderful encore: Jaroussky and Stutzmann sang the duet Son nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare. It’s one of their signature pieces when singing together and it is absolutely stupendous. Their voices blend beautifully and you can well believe in them as mother and son bewailing their fate. It was the perfect end.
As some of you know, I have slightly mixed feelings about Jaroussky’s voice: I find him extremely good at a particular kind of singing, but he doesn’t have the vocal oomph to carry off the flashier end of the Baroque canon. His youthful tones have the clear, linear elegance of an Ingres drawing, whereas I have a weakness for more richly textured, voluptuous, Rubenseque voices. Seeing him in person did little to change my judgement, but the concert played to his strengths and so I think I’ve come to better appreciate his skill with the slow, mournful or eloquent arias.
I also now have an immense respect for the man himself. He is the most famous countertenor in the world (we could argue about him vis-a-vis Scholl, I suppose) and yet there was no grandstanding – though if anyone could get away with it, he could. He just sat quietly on the stage during the instrumental pieces, rose to sing and then sat again or turned to watch. This meant that the recital wasn’t constantly interrupted by his entrances, and gave it the feel of a coherent whole, flowing from vocal to instrumental and back again. (This was emphasised by Stutzmann’s tight grip on the reins: she obviously wanted to keep up the pace, and it worked very well.)
At the end he came to do some signing of programmes and CDs: the queue was immense, but he spent two or three minutes with everyone. There was no sense of being on a production line: he didn’t imply that he had to move onto the next person or that he was in a hurry to head off to dinner. He wasn’t even being gracious, because that suggests condescension: he was just remarkably personable and down-to-earth. He’s a very smart man. And, incidentally, he surely has a portrait tucked away in some dark attic somewhere, because despite being almost forty he still looks like a charmingly precocious sixth former. All things considered, I came away very impressed with the whole Jaroussky ‘brand’, and I certainly wasn’t predisposed to be.
I hope to have the chance to see him again one day, but I don’t know when that will be. We asked him teasingly at the end when he was coming back to London (having utterly failed to get a ticket for his lunchtime concert at the Wigmore in December). He was non-committal – confessing that he wasn’t sure that the English were all that fond of what he did. I’ve heard that before from other countertenors, but to hear it from someone of Jaroussky’s stature is rather concerning, and I tried to persuade him that we just need to be exposed to more good singing and then people will become broader-minded. However, that’s a long and weary rant for another day. For now, suffice it to say that we left our first concert in Halle content and buzzing with excitement – and a good thing too, because this was only the beginning…
* For non-Baroque readers, Stutzmann came to conducting relatively recently: she was and still is a formidable contralto