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Philippe Jaroussky Sings Handel and Porpora Arias with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, plus Locatelli’s L’Arte del Violino in Sydney

Philippe Jaroussky, From philippejaroussky.fr.
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Philippe Jaroussky, From philippejaroussky.fr.
Philippe Jaroussky. From philippejaroussky.fr.

City Recital Hall, Sydney: 13 March 2013

Philippe Jaroussky and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra travel to Melbourne 18 March and play again in Sydney 20, 22, 23 and 25 March. A recording will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 23 March, 1 PM AEST.

Handel – Deborah HWV51: Overture
Handel – Oreste HWVA11: Agitato da fiere tempeste
Handel – Arianna in Creta HWV32: O patria…Sol ristoro di mortali
Handel – Water Music suite in D major HWV349
PorporaSemiramide riconosciuta: Si pietoso il tuo labbro
PorporaArianna e Teseo: Mira in Cielo
PorporaOrfeo: Dall’amor più sventurato
PorporaPolifemo: Alto Giove
Locatelli – Violin Concerto opus 3 no. 1 L’Arte del Violino
Shaun Lee-Chen – violin
Handel – Alcina HWV34: Mi lusinga a dolce affetto
Handel – Arianna in Creta HWV32: Ove son?…Qui ti sfido

Philippe Jaroussky – counter-tenor
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Paul Dyer – conductor and artistic director

The challenge, the risk of counter-tenor singing, still fairly young as a revived technique, seems to appeal to modern audiences; it is a peculiar type of virtuosity just by virtue of the technique. It is only natural that the the counter-tenor revival took off in the 1950’s and developed in parallel with the historical performance practice movement. That was Alfred Deller who helped it take off, who started as a boy in a choir in the 1920’s and as an adult helped the Purcell revival in singing alto, and gave recitals of Italian madrigals and Elizabethan songs, but also singing contemporary opera, creating the role of Oberon for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.1 Philippe Jaroussky cites Deller’s very distinctive voice, and also James Bowman, who too inspired Britten, creating the role of Apollo for Death in Venice, as voices he listened to in forming his own, and forming as an artist, Bowman especially. Bowman gave his farewell concert in Paris only last November, and many good recordings exist of Deller. Now with some hundreds of professional counter-tenors in the world and they inching up into the soprano range, the hole in the Baroque and classical “instrumentarium” left by the extremely distinctive and castrato voice which tickled so much enthusiasm in audiences — and composers — in the 17th and 18th century is filling, or at least better circumscribed, without needing to resort to a false general preference or dichotomy determined by fashions between counter-tenors and sopranos en travestie, in recital or in opera, or between counter-tenors and contraltos.

Philippe Jaroussky especially gives a vivid idea of what the castrati might have sounded like in his striving for natural tone, in using his tessitura expressively, his virtuosity is restrained and always stands behind, rather than in front of, his musical ideas. He is always aware of his environment whether physical, acoustic, historical, musical, dramatic or spiritual. He places each aria in his recital so as to remove one from the concert hall, or one’s stereo. (He recently released a new double CD: La voix des rêves.) Like the best pianists or heroic singers — or dancers —, but something perhaps taken for granted with singers, one is never aware and never thinks about how he is making his sound and he always sings in character; the voice doesn’t come from his chest — it doesn’t really seem to come from his head either. But, paradoxically, his airy, even ethereal tone seems unconstrained, and even modest, his presence is distinctive and vivid rather than penetrating, is musical and theatrical by nature, rather than solid or forceful. This seems especially the case in the slow, grave arias and the slow powerful ones of mixed emotions like Handel’s Mi lusinga a dolce affetto from Alcina or Alto Giove from Polifemo. The extended held note beginning in the latter and the repetitions seemed natural as he put them. He sounded somewhat subdued in the earlier part of the concert — it was his first concert after a three month break — but his voice bloomed for the Porpora arias and the final Handel arias. Porpora seemed even to adumbrate very slightly something of Mozart’s early masses and operas, especially with the spontaneous, fresh treatment Jaroussky found here. His diction is impeccable, the words very clear, showing his thoughtful approach to the music. He captures the aria’s ambivalent nature, their embodied dramatic indecisiveness came across intensely, especially in the vivid final two both by Handel, strongly contrasting the caressing, hazy pleasure and temptation in Mi lusinga a dolce affetto from Alcina with the developing anger in the arioso-aria pair from Arianna in CretaOve son?Qui ti sfido,” heroically enough, crossing the heart of the human condition. The latter aria evoked vividly the Daedalian labyrinth: the fear of the uncertain arioso-like lines “Ove son? Qual orrore / Spirano da ogni parte / di quest’ orrido claustro i duri sassi?” (a question which comes into one’s head more and more often lately walking around Sydney), overcome with the righteous, indignant anger of “Qui ti sfido o mostro infame!” And the former evoked vividly the pleasance, the bower of bliss of Alcina, the Circe character from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, who must have been on the minds of 16th and 17th century Englishman as the character also inspired Edmund Spenser’s Acrasia in the Faerie Queene. Listen to, for example,

Her snowy brest was bare to readie spoyle
Of hungry eies, which n’ote therewith be fild,
And yet through languour of her late sweet toyle,
Few drops, more clear then Nectar, forth distild,
That like pure Orient perles adowne it trild,
And her faire eyes sweet smyling in delight,
Moystened their fierie beames, with which she thrild
Frail harts, yet quenched not; like starry light
Which sparckling on the silent waves, does seem more bright.2

and is there not also something of this in Handel’s aria, especially as Jaroussky interprets it, even without the presence of Alcina herself — with no small contribution from Tommie Andersson’s delicate theorbo playing in the orchestra?

Philippe Jaroussky and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Paul Dyer conducting (sometimes from the keyboard, sometimes standing up), showed a close rapport that went beyond soloist and accompaniment, especially in the meeting of timbre and dynamics. Handel’s Deborah Overture opened the concert with exuberant style while seamlessly leading into the first aria. This dramatic sense which the orchestra and Paul Dyer showed so strongly in their performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo last year seems to have stuck firmly. Jaroussky’s serene, ethereal tone and his dwelling on the mysterious in the music contrasted a bit with the ABO’s approach, which seemed to have more chiaro than oscuro, a somewhat more solid, definite tone. The orchestra played especially precisely even by their standards and the rhythms were extremely clear, but their sound perhaps was a touch over-integrated, an over-kneaded sonority. Perhaps this is a matter of taste and style, though. The Handel D major Water Music suite was well served by this kind of orchestral sound, the exact, rhythmic strings spoke with the looser, more aloof horns and the trumpets, allowing the piece its pomp without overdoing it but with a fresh, energized out-of-doors feeling, without needing to resort to heavy or deafening crescendos, thus keeping the complexity of Handel’s writing clear.

Philippe Jaroussky started out on the violin, his taste for the high register perhaps assisting his decision later to sing counter-tenor, so it’s natural to come upon the Locatelli concerto in the program. The piece exemplifies Locatelli’s reputation for provocation and for fathering the 19th century violin virtuoso tradition, making Paganini’s devil sound a little innocuous. He still sounds provocative. In the vein of the mid-20th century experimentalists’ rediscovery of the late medieval ars subtilior music, the Locatelli concerto wouldn’t sound at all out of place — or even Baroque — in a John Cage concert. It demands long high passages, often lingering within an inch or two of the bridge, a range of bowing technique one doesn’t really see on steel strings, and a range of tone colors to include the scratchy, sharp and bitter side of the violin’s voice. With his unconventional sense of beauty, Locatelli seems to take the concerto form to an extreme in marrying more or less conversantly, but perhaps not always happily, these almost anti-melodic, unharmonious sounds to the orchestra’s and to the largo’s somewhat more restful beauty. Shaun Lee-Chen, it would go without saying, shows incredible talent in presenting this piece with his spontaneous energy — it would have been much easier to rest on the seamless sound editing of a CD — but he presented the piece with a certain modesty which I believe made him as endearing to the audience as his boldness in playing.

See also:

Radio France, France Inter: Philippe Jaroussky, contre-ténor – 15 novembre 2012

France Musique: Cécilia Bartoli et Philippe Jaroussky

  1. See J. B. Steane writing for Grove Music Online.
  2. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book II, canto 12, v. 78.

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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