The beginning of July was almost unbearably hot by London standards; and so, on walking into Handel House’s recital room, I was delighted to find a novel solution to the problem. Every chair was graced with its own neat red folded fan. The team should be congratulated: few London venues would be so thoughtful nor so imaginative (I should note that we did have to give them back at the end: a shame, as they were more efficacious than my own).
And the fans added a real 18th-century flavour to the evening. A summer back in Handel’s day might have been like this: the blinds drawn against the sun pouring off Brook Street; fans fluttering or being tapped in time on knees, and the sounds of harpischord, oboe, violin and soprano echoing through open doors and up the creaking stairways of the old house. It was rather wonderful. Credit must go to the musicians of Ars Eloquentiae and to Erica Eloff for plunging in with such good-natured verve and energy despite the heat.
I’m not familiar with Handel’s cantatas, which were interspersed here with instrumental sonatas which I also didn’t know. We started off with the Oboe Sonata in Bb major, which was played with great grace and refinement by Leo Duarte. I’d seen him before in Gluck’s Antigono, where he caught my eye with a gorgeous solo at the beginning of the aria which Gluck later transformed into Orfeo’s Che puro ciel. Here he impressed again, especially in the final Allegro where he pulled off a formidably complicated patch of coloratura (can one speak of oboe coloratura? Never mind. I’m going to anyway).
He gave way to the leading lady of the evening: the soprano Erica Eloff, magnificent in every sense. I’d seen her twice before: once as Marzia in Handel’s pasticcio version of Catone and once as Farnaspe in J.C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria. She stunned me in the latter and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to hear her in such an intimate setting, with barely thirty other people.
The theme of the evening was love and loss, and so Eloff’s first piece was Un’ alma innamorata, an early work written during Handel’s time in Italy in 1707 (I don’t know if we heard the entire piece, because the full thing lasts about fifteen minutes and this wasn’t that long). The lyrics are the standard stuff of Baroque romantic despair: a besotted soul, a prisoner of love, an unhappy sufferer… Interestingly, the piece has always been intended for the female voice but it’s never quite made clear whether the character singing is supposed to be male or female. We’d been warned at the start of the concert, with a smile, that there were to be no happy endings tonight and yet, despite a subdued first part, followed by a haunting violin solo, the fourth movement of this cantata flourished into surprising jauntiness. The lover suddenly becomes more self-aware – ‘Io godo, rido e spero‘ (‘I delight, laugh and hope’). There was even a little vocal duel with the violin which Eloff seemed to be enjoying enormously. It was wonderful.
We then had the Trio sonata in Bb major, which gave each of the musicians their moment in the sun: harpsichord, violin and oboe. Apparently there’s been debate over whether or not this piece is actually by Handel, because he would’ve had to have written it when he was only ten years old. It certainly sounds a bit too advanced for so young a child, especially when Handel didn’t come from a musical family; but it’s still a beautiful piece and I’m certainly not in a position to judge one way or the other. The opening Adagio gave way to an Allegro, in which a sudden sweeping note changed the tempo and drew us into a lovely Largo. By the end all the musicians were evidently rather flushed and drained in the heat, but they were grinning too and quite right, because it was great fun.
Eloff then returned for the second cantata, Mi palpita il cor, which was written in London and turned out to be the highlight of the evening for me. I adored it from the first couple of bars. The very clever opening phrase extended the first syllable of ‘palpita’ into ‘ah-ah-ah’, echoing the very trembling of the suffering heart itself. And as if that wasn’t good enough, the cantata then exploded into precisely the kind of quickfire, sparkling coloratura that I adore, set off with a beautifully delicate messa di voce. About two minutes into it, I realised that I was sitting there right in the middle of the front row with a fatuous grin on my face, and tried desperately to change my expression into something more intellectual; but it was just such a splendid piece that I’m not sure I had an awful lot of success. The latter part of the cantata was a little softer and more forlorn, but it still rounded off with a splendidly powerful note that left my nerves tingling.
Then we had the Violin sonata in D major (changed from the D minor advertised in the program because, as the musicians said, they felt we needed more ‘triumph’ and less ‘trial’). This was super all round, and bear in mind that this comes from someone who very much prefers vocal music. The opening Affettuoso was achingly gorgeous, with sweeping languid notes that made me think of the cool twilight in a garden at the end of a hot day (wishful thinking, perhaps, given the weather). That opened into an Allegro that was infectiously foot-tapping, followed by a Larghetto which was a little more staid but nevertheless brimming with emotion. And the final Allegro? Sheer joy.
The programme rounded off with a final vocal piece, Languia di bocca lusinghiera, which the musicians explained probably wasn’t actually a cantata at all, but an aria written for a now-lost opera. Once again we were in the full spirit of Baroque angst: the singer pining for the beauties of love and adoring the seeming cruelty of their lover. I must confess that this didn’t quite grab me in the aftermath of Mi palpita il cor, but it was nevertheless very graceful and gentle; and I shall be trying to track down all the pieces I heard tonight, although I don’t suppose I’ll be able to find any recordings of Eloff herself singing them.
Usually in recitals I focus on the singer because that’s what I understand best, and yes, Eloff was the main draw of the recital for me; but I have to say that each of the three musicians really made an impression. I’ve already mentioned Duarte; he was accompanied by Chad Kelly, whose fiery, brisk handling of the harpsichord brought the music alive; and by Kinga Ujszászí, who turned in a thoroughly engaging performance on the violin, by turns elegiac and jaunty, which made these early 18th-century cantatas sound bubbly and spontaneous. Once again I thought how lucky I am to have fallen in love with a genre where virtually all the musicians are so young and passionate, and able to play in a way that shatters preconceptions of ‘classical music’ and conveys all of its fizz and panache.
And most of all I’m conscious of how fortunate I am to have listened to Eloff at such close range (less than two metres away: it’s a small room). These cantatas, by turn heartfelt and hopeful, offered her different material from Marzia’s clear, rather icy arias, or the languid romantic sweetness of her Farnaspe. Her voice appeals to me so much because it isn’t one of those prettily pure sopranos, but it has weight and body and emotion to it, capable of raw suffering but also of ringing grandeur in her strong notes. Being so close also allowed me to appreciate her dramatic expressiveness: even in this recital context she seemed to passing through all the stages of joy and anguish related in the music. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can’t wait for her take on Pergolesi’s Farnaspe in September.