During the period known as the Restoration the wayward English concentrated their musical tastes on song and a sort of musical theatre, whilst composers of continental Europe embraced the more sophisticated operatic forms. The English sentiment at the time, which almost exclusively used music as part of plays, splitting their preferences between comedy and heroic drama. The Englishman Henry Purcell provides us with the one operatic exception in his Dido and Aeneas (1680), plus a dearth of incidental songs, odes and ditties for various occasions.
L’Arpeggiata, a merry 10-member band of musicians and singers based in France brought some of this lesser-known music to the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday night. Received warmly by the Melbourne crowd, they treated us to 17 short works by Purcell and others. A sense of quiet fun and simpatico dialogue between players was a feature of the evening, often giving one the sense that we were witnessing a lounge room improv jam (with a bit of audience sing-a-long thrown in). The music-making was by no stretch flippant and the technical ability of each player was top notch.
This motley crew constantly upended the expectations and, dare I say, prejudices of an educated audience. From one piece to the next I couldn’t be quite sure which century we were going to pop up in. Cornettist Daron Sherwin sounded like Wynton Marsalis at times, as bassist Boris Schmidt played a convincing jazz solo, and the organist’s improvisation was reminiscent too of a modern Hammond organ. Theorbist and Director Christina Pluhar, who established the ensemble in 2000, is well known in the early music scene although her input on the night was more as a facilitator than solo player.
Two singers shared the spotlight, sauntering to stage centre as if reacting to music played in a club from the street. The light-hearted songs often fell to the singer/dancer Vincenzo Capezzuto whose vocal and physical agility was a highlight. The effect was of a youthful Pan in Purcell’s “Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh Town”, “One charming Night” and the very cute “Man is for woman made”.
Regular L’Arpeggiata soprano Celine Scheen brought her own brand of wit to the stage in “Strike the viol”, but the biggest emotional impact from her pure as gold voice came in a stunning version of “O, let me forever weep” from The Fairy Queen. Scheen is a sinewy performer, theatrical and mysterious, whose voice eked out every nuance in Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas.
Special mention should be made of percussionist Sergey Saprychev. His extended hand drum solo had the audience in his thrall with a rousing virtuosity and sense of theatre, throwing drums in time to a pulse plus more musical acrobatics reminiscent of circus performers.
This concert was enjoyable on so many levels, and with their mix of baroque larrikinism and soulfulness, perfect for Australian listeners.