(Wigmore Hall, 2 July 2016)
On Saturday night it was time for the second contralto recital of the week, this time the multi-talented Nathalie Stutzmann and her orchestra Orfeo 55. You may remember that I saw Stutzmann for the first time at last year’s Halle Handel Festival, where she conducted (and guest-starred) in Philippe Jaroussky’s concert. Tonight she had the stage to herself, both conducting – a variety of beautifully-balanced orchestral pieces – and singing – a selection of arias ranging from the playful to the anguished. And all were by the doyen of Venetian style: the glorious Red Priest himself.
We began with the Concerto in D major for lute and strings (RV93), where a glittering opening resolved itself into a gorgeous, almost conversational exchange between the violins on one side of the stage and the lute and cello on the other. It felt like chorus and verse. A special mention has to go to Michele Pasotti on the lute (and later the theorbo), who played with immense delicacy and feeling, drawing out all the different colours of his instrument’s sound. As you know, I’d generally take an aria over a concerto any day, but this piece almost turned me. Stutzmann kept the orchestra well in check, which meant that the lute was never fighting against the other instruments, and this boded very well for the balance between voice and band later on.
The first movement, the Allegro giusto, ended with a gentle, yearning cadenza on the lute and the Largo, if possible, was even more elegant. The pace was sublime – already moved to embarrassingly poetic metaphors, I scribbled down that it was ‘like gliding in a gondola on a lovely spring afternoon‘. The walking rhythm of the cellos and bass underlaid the lute’s melody and the strings offered a soft and gentle accompaniment. They were unleashed slightly for the final Allegro, where we launched into a lively, skipping dance. The main melody was still delivered by the lute, though echoed towards the end by Patrick Langot and Céline Barricault on the cellos, and overall it was one of the most delightful pieces of instrumental music I’ve heard played live. Fresh and heartfelt, it was a joy to listen to.
Next up was the Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro (RV169), which I’ve heard before when Dmitry Sinkovsky and B’Rock played it as part of their Proms Matinee concert last summer. It began with faint, trembling strings, ‘like moonlight on the canals‘ (my notes), swelling into a haunting melody with a hint of unease. It felt like film noir, 18th-century Venetian style. I spent much of this piece watching Stutzmann directing the orchestra: she’s an almost balletic conductor, using wide sweeps of her arms to dictate pace and bring in new sections of the band, and there’s something rather hypnotic about it. The sinfonia has only two movements, which caught me out with B’Rock and did so again here: the strings gradually build during the Adagio molto, but that underlying unease remains; and then, in the Allegro ma poco, the piece shifts into an intense, almost anguished melody.
This was where I got confused, because Stutzmann didn’t allow applause between the end of the Sinfonia and the beginning of the next piece. I remember that in Halle, too, she was keen simply to move from one piece to the next, so as not to disrupt the mood perhaps. At the end of the Sinfonia she paused the orchestra, and brought in the organ to guide us into the Stabat Mater in F minor (RV621). Sweeping, eloquent strings rose up and then Stutzmann’s voice broke in: low and tenebrous, cradled rather than swamped by the music, and echoed in a mournful melisma by a single violin. As we travelled through the Virgin’s agonies along with her, the balance between music and voice was always just so, and even the strings sometimes took on a vocal quality: a series of powerful, discordant sweeps sounded almost like sorrowing cries, which faded into nothingness.
I’m used to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, so hearing it sung by one voice still feels odd to me, but Vivaldi’s setting nevertheless has a pain and emotion that you don’t get in Pergolesi, for all its beauty. I have to admit that I felt slightly ambivalent about Stutzmann’s voice at this point. It didn’t quite have the shadowy velvet timbre I remembered from Halle; as I put it, somewhat clumsily, to a friend, she sounded a bit rusty. And yet her emotional intensity was breathtaking: she seemed to be living the music, and one of the most striking moments was the repetition of ‘Stabat Mater‘ towards the end, where the note began low and throbbing and vibrating, almost as if it were rising out of the tomb. I was captivated by the performance; but not quite transported by the voice. Not yet.
We returned after the interval for the bright, breezy introduction of the Ritornello di Medoro from the 1714 Orlando Furioso, a scintillating tumble of strings that perked everyone up and got us settled for the rollercoaster of feeling that was to come. I should note that, throughout, I thought all the instrumental pieces very well chosen to reflect or complement the mood of the singing, and wondered again whether this was a result of Stutzmann being both singer and musical director. Next up was the first proper aria, Io sento in questo seno from Arsilda, regina di Ponto (1716). Poor Arsilda is confused by her lover’s sudden coldness towards her, not realising that in fact said lover is not her lover at all, but his twin sister in disguise. (I don’t know this opera, but the plot sounds so mad I think I’d rather enjoy it.) Despite the rather silly situation, the aria itself is one of deep, genuine pain and anxiety. As I’ve said, Stutzmann’s strength lies in her expressiveness and her ability to negotiate these long, sweeping lines of lamentation. On the words ‘Piangere e sospirar‘, her voice trembled: you felt the very affliction of love, and there was a lovely section with just voice and lute. If I had one element of doubt, it was that some of the high notes felt a bit pushed.
Judging by its lyrics, the next aria should have been equally tormented, but Cor mio che prigion sei from L’Atenaide was actually surprisingly jolly. It was dominated by cheerful pizzicati from the strings, which prompted the unhelpful observation in my notes that it was like ‘pixies tiptoeing through the rain‘. Awkward similes aside, it was delightful: delicate, light and almost flirtatious, as Stutzmann echoed the plucked strings with playful melismas. It felt almost like a comic aside before we plunged into Agitata infida flatu from Juditha triumphans which, according to the lyrics, is about a swallow buffeted by the winds and trying to find her way home, but in reality is more akin to a full-on storm aria. The strings conjured up the sound of the wind whirling to and fro, while Stutzmann’s voice grew steadily more forceful throughout the first section, culminating in a ringing held note at the end of the B section that commanded attention. The da capo was intense, powerful and fierce, suggesting that the context in the oratorio must be rather dramatic. I haven’t yet seen it, but I know it’s coming to London in the autumn. It’d be good to find out what’s actually going on at this point.
We took another instrumental pause for the Adagio from the Concerto in G minor for strings and continuo (RV156), which offered a moment of calm, tinged with grief or loss. This turned out to be prophetic, because next on the agenda was Gelido in ogni vena from Farnace (1727) which, for me, was the highlight of the evening. I’ve said throughout this post that Stutzmann shines at the expression of raw emotion, and this aria, in which a father thinks he has caused his son to be killed, was a masterclass in angst. I know this aria fairly well, because Max Cencic sings it, but there was something about Stutzmann’s performance that drove his rendition right out of my mind. The unsettling opening (‘like sharp-edged snowflakes‘: another bizarre simile from the notebook) gave way to strings pealing down. Stutzmann’s voice blended perfectly with the violins at the end of the first ‘M’ingombra di terror‘ and, for the second ‘terror‘, she dipped down into the dark, shadowy depths of her range.
Stutzmann seemed to be internalising the grief and pain of the aria: by the end of the B section she was standing with eyes closed, hunched forward around the emptiness at her core. Her command of the orchestra was evident here: they watched her as she stood and then, with a taut sigh, she simply twitched her shoulders and they struck up again for the da capo. Again here was the unforgiving rhythm of the bass; the beautiful, harsh cries of the strings; and Stutzmann’s own raw, open voice. It was not perhaps as beautiful a voice as she had in her recordings a few years ago, but I felt that her greater experience had helped her wring every possible ounce of feeling from the music. It was a forceful performance both vocally and instrumentally: the cello had a sawing, ruthless quality as it carried the pace and as the anguish bled out of Stutzmann’s voice, her Farnace seemed to be struggling against the momentum of the music, shackled to the sombre tolling of the cello, all lightness and frivolity stripped away to the raw agonies of the soul.
Since by this point I felt emotionally crushed, I was glad that we had another breather, in the form of the Adagio and Allegro molto from the Concerto in C for strings and continuo (RV 109), composed in the early 1720s. There was a rather gentle opening, but then (‘Hello!‘ I scribbled) we sped up and were off for a gallop. It was lively and joyous, the kind of music where Mozart would’ve added a jolly chorus of horns. There was a little flash of pizzicati strings in the middle and then back to the cheerful gallop again, leading us into the final aria, Gemo in un punto e fremo from L’Olimpiade (1734). The frantic strings got us underway, and when Stutzmann began to sing she’d swapped her raw agony for a more powerful, assertive attitude. The violins fluttered and then ceased for the B section, which offered a little break of calm – but only a brief one – and then we were back into the chaos (there’s no doubling up of the A sections here). Strong and angry, Stutzmann belted out ‘O mille furie in sen‘ and brought us tumbling to a sudden halt. It was a very effective way to finish.
There were three encores (after much applause, shouting of ‘brava!’ and even some rather piercing whistling from someone at the back – Dehggial, was that you?). The first was Vedrò con mio diletto from Giustino (1724), a beautiful aria delivered by Anastasio. A measured intro gave way to some haunting and very romantic singing from Stutzmann. Again it offered the long, evocative lines that suit her voice so well, and yet this wasn’t a song of grief or anguish but one of pleading and yearning, which Stutzmann wrapped up with a gentle smile. It was probably my second favourite of the night, after Gelido in ogni vena. Next there was a very light-hearted aria, which I didn’t recognise, full of pizzicati and fun. It fizzed like a sherbet and if anyone knows what it is, I’d love to find out, so that I can buy a copy. We wrapped up with a final instrumental piece – brisk and brief and sparkling, like a carnival dance, and alas, once more unknown to me.
It was a very striking concert, mainly for the exquisite balance between voice and orchestra, and for Stutzmann’s multi-tasking approach. (My friend pointed out that she also plays the bassoon, so she’s practically a one-woman band, though we weren’t treated to that.) She is an immensely dignified performer. Like Prina, she is worth watching for the impact of her presence, though here it wasn’t pugnacious brilliance that appealed, but the depth of her emotional expression. Purely on a vocal level she may not have been at her career best yesterday, but the way she sings pierces right down into your heart.