I don’t give ratings to recitals but, if I did, this one would be five stars. I’d go so far as to call it revelatory, not only in showcasing the talent of its leading lady, but also in its programme, which mixed big hitters with some lesser known gems.
Full of splendid arias and volatile symphonies, it simmered with drama, and we were fortunate enough to be in the presence of two great storytellers. Ian Page, at the helm of Classical Opera, squeezed every ounce of energy from his orchestra (themselves squeezed onto the Wigmore’s stage), and Ann Hallenberg herself simply blew me away. I’ve heard her on recordings but this was the first time I’d seen her live. Her singing voice is gorgeous, of course, but her greatest strength is in the way she draws out the mood of any given aria and transmits it, heart and soul, to her audience.
The programme of arias was split equally between Gluck, in the first half, and Mozart in the second. Hallenberg appeared, wearing a rather fabulous tailored blue silk coat with matching trousers, to get things underway with the aria Resta o cara from Gluck’s Trionfo di Clelia. Now, I hadn’t even heard of the opera before, but the aria was a delight and a challenge. From the first drawn-out note, to the rippling coloratura in the A section, Hallenberg sang with effortless, dignified control. Her voice was warm and powerful, filling the Wigmore comfortably, with a pleasant textured burr to the lower notes. And she won me over right away with her humour. I enjoy watching people who look as if they’re having fun, and Hallenberg spent this first aria positively twinkling, especially when tackling the elaborate coloratura in the da capo section. It all rounded off with a brilliant cadenza. There were even horns.
Needless to say, by this point I was sold. Hallenberg went straight on to O del mio dolce ardor from Paride ed Elena, which I know quite well because it’s on Valer Sabadus’s Gluck album, to which I listen rather a lot. Now, I don’t willingly demote Sabadus to second place, but I really did enjoy Hallenberg’s rendition. The pace was slower than Sabadus’s, and her voice was deeper and more resonant with all the colours of human longing. Her diction was also superb, which I feel compelled to mention because I’ve criticised other people for poor diction in the past. The only odd thing about this piece was that it seemed to finish rather abruptly, but maybe I was just so caught up in it that I lost track of time.
Next up was the first of the instrumental pieces, which don’t normally grip me as intently as the arias. But this was different. It was a symphony in C minor by Johann Martin Kraus, a Swedish composer (and thus perhaps a graceful compliment to Hallenberg), and it was more than a piece of music: it was practically an experience. The opening Larghetto-Allegro began delicately and hauntingly, as you’d expect in a requiem, but abruptly erupted into something very un-Baroque. The cellos picked up the pace, driving the rest of the orchestra along, with the violins galloping frantically ahead like a runaway carriage plunging down a mountain. (I’m sorry for the visual images. There are more to come, but it’s the only way I can express the extraordinary narrative feel of this piece of music.) It was uneasy, on edge: it mixed vivid, slightly discordant sections with a gentler, insidiously disturbing melody. Then there was a build-up of horns, a full-on crash of strings, and we tumbled into a thing of frantic glory, full of whirlwinds and martial clashes. It was Romantic with a capital R and Sublime with a capital S: a great, towering, majestic Alpine pass of a symphony.
Somewhat overcome, I readied myself for frantic applause as the music faded into silence, but to my amazement realised that the orchestra were only taking breath. Oh my God! I wrote in my notebook, and nudged my friend. That was only the first bit?! It was indeed. The second movement, a mild-mannered Andante, initially felt as incongruous as a Sicilian bandit dancing a quadrille, but a blast of horns added a bit of spice at the end, as we came towards the concluding movement. Does this bode well? I wrote in my notebook. The first few bars of the final Allegro gave me my answer. Hell yes! I scribbled underneath. The Sicilian bandit is back! (As you can see, my imagination was in full swing by this point. By the end, I’d conjured up practically an entire novella about said bandit, thanks to the music.) This last movement bubbled with drama once again, speeding up all the time like a chase through a snowy forest, underlaid by soft horns which occasionally pierced through like moonbeams. Quite simply, it was epic.
I wouldn’t have minded if the interval had come then. I could have done with a bit of a walk to calm down, and the orchestra probably wanted to go and lie in a darkened room to recover, but we still had the treat of two more arias from Hallenberg. She returned with another twinkle, and ushered us into a much-needed realm of calm with the exquisite Che puro ciel from Gluck’s Orfeo. Again, I know this very well from Sabadus’s recording, and again I thought Hallenberg did it beautifully. The orchestra sounded quite loud at points and, had we been much further back, we might have lost some of her low notes, but from where we were sitting it was fine. Again she drew out the emotion: ‘tutto spira in tranquillo‘, Orfeo laments, ‘ma non per me‘. Hallenberg filled those last words with heartbroken resignation. As a bonus, we even had the orchestra forming an impromptu chorus to deliver the final line of the piece, and they did a very creditable job.
It was at this point I began to realise the common theme in Hallenberg’s programme. She could have simply chosen strong arias and delighted us with her voice, but instead she was making a real effort to choose pieces which would allow her to act. The same was true of the final piece of the first half, Misera dove son… Ah, non son io from Gluck’s Ezio, in which the heroine Fulvia trembles on the edge of madness. After an introductory recitative, Hallenberg led us into a swirling aria split between passion and fear, with formidable aplomb. With eyes wide in horror, she kept a dramatic grip on our collective throats as the Baroque-o-meter was cranked up to 11. It was a magnificent aria. Indeed, at the end all I could manage was ‘wow‘.
You’ll be glad to hear that I have less to say about the second half, not because it was any less wonderful, but because I’d slightly tired myself out in the first half. After consulting with Dehggial in the foyer during the interval (variants on, ‘That was awesome!’), we returned for a bit of Mozart. Hallenberg began with a short aperitif of a piece: Che scompiglia, che flagello, from La finta semplice. Again, this was something I hadn’t heard before, but Hallenberg conveyed her character Giacinta’s fear with hunted eyes and short, breathy gasps. It was brief, but a dramatic counterbalance to what followed, in which we left the regions of fear and tension for the sunny uplands of romantic expectation. This was Il tenero momento from Lucio Silla, in which Cecilio anticipates his meeting with his lover. For the hopeful A section, Hallenberg adopted an expression of rapturous happiness; but in the B section her Cecilio’s confidence falters, and Hallenberg’s voice became more plangent as Cecilio imagines his lover’s fears for him. It’s such a gorgeous melody: top class Mozart, and as we came into the da capo, Hallenberg brought all her skill to bear on the fluttering notes. The finest point of the entire aria was the cadenza at the end, and she sang the final lines a cappella. Again my descriptive powers deserted me. ‘Wow again,‘ I wrote, unimaginatively.
Next up was the second symphony, this time by Johann Christian Bach (his Symphony in G minor, Op. 6, no. 6). Since Adriano, I’ve been quite a fan of J.C.’s operas and I was looking forward to hearing some of his instrumental music. It grieves me to say that, while this would have been a highlight in a normal programme, J.C. simply couldn’t compete with the fiery storms of Kraus. He kicked off with a vibrant Allegro, I grant you, all swift strings and soft horns, but it felt tied to its period while Kraus transcended it. The Andante was set in C minor and took us back into that land of uneasy, shifting shadows, but I confess my mind began to drift slightly, until I was abruptly recalled by the magisterial Allegro molto at the end. Yes, it was mighty and confident but, if we continue the Sublime analogies, it was like Ben Nevis set beside Kraus’s Mont Blanc. Hallenberg returned, to eager applause, for her final two arias: first Ramiro’s aria Se l’augellin sen fugge from La finta giardiniera. In this aria he announces that he isn’t about to fall in love again: does the caged bird, newly freed from its prison, flutter around its captor? Now, I haven’t seen La finta giardiniera, but would I be wrong in assuming that Ramiro ends up happily paired off with someone? Naturally Hallenberg was delightful, acting the role as she sang, passing from bemusement and pride to the light mischief of the effervescent coloratura.
This cheerfulness was a stark contrast to the final aria: the melting beauty of Sesto’s Deh, per questo istante solo from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. This is one of Dehggial’s favourites, so she has a much more thorough and informed take on it. I will say only that Hallenberg showed glorious strength and delicacy throughout, switching between Sesto’s pride and his anguished pleading, her desperation coming through in her gestures as deeply as in her mellifluous voice. She held everyone rapt: when she paused for breath, the entire Hall was silent. I think it was the first time I’ve heard this aria live, and it was magical. There was one encore: the song Caro mio ben, which doesn’t seem to be from a known opera but is more of a concert aria. It felt like a soothing bedtime story after an excitable day: very lovely and gentle, elegantly drawing things to a close.
As you can tell, I enjoyed it. It’s been a long time since I was so moved and inspired by a recital. Perhaps that’s because some of my worries have lifted from my mind, and I finally feel free to love things again. And perhaps it’s because this was simply supreme, gold-standard singing and playing. Needless to say, I’m going to make a real effort to see Hallenberg whenever she sings Baroque in London in the future. And I must again pay tribute to the wonderful orchestra. I always enjoy Classical Opera’s performances, but they really did a stellar job tonight. And they seem such a warm and engaging bunch. Ian Page, in particular, always looks so genial and so pleasantly surprised to see so many people in the audience. A truly fabulous evening: congratulations to all involved. If only there were a recording of this programme: it’d be one of the hottest releases of the year!