Zankel Hall, the underground concert hall beneath the main stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City, was the setting last night for a concert dedicated to the music of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and his contemporaries by Christina Pluhar's early music ensemble, L'Arpeggiata, with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as vocal soloist.
I have been an intensely absorbed fan of Jaroussky for several years now, but this was actually my first occasion to appreciate him "live" in concert, all my prior exposure having been through recordings and views of youtube clips. The personal encounter is overwhelming. I generally enjoy the countertenor voice, and have heard quite a variety of those, since I regularly attend New York City Opera where countertenors abound in their revivals of 17th and 18th century operas, but never have I heard and seen a countertenor who compels the fascinated attention of Jaroussky. His high, clear, pure voice is used with the utmost flexibility and musicality, and he throws his entire body into the drama of the music he is performing in a style that seems much less inhibited than any other countertenor I've observed. The effect of his performances on record is overwhelming; in person, it is compounded by the visual stimulation of his presentation.
That said, I could have wished that last night had been composed entirely of Jaroussky – except I have to say that this would have deprived us of the opportunity to enjoy the virtuosity of the extraordinary musicians of L'Arpeggiata and their inspired musical director, Christina Pluhar, who anchors the performances with her virtuosity on the theorbo. All of these excellent musicians deserve individual mention: Eero Palviainen (archlute and baroque guitar), Veronika Skuplik (baroque violin), Doron Sherwin (cornetto), Margit Ubellacker (psaltery), David Mayoral (percussion), and Haru Kitamkika (keyboards – on this occasion, harpsichord and positive organ). But among all these, in addition to Pluhar, I would particularly mention Doron Sherwin, the cornettist, who has become a particular hero of mine with his stylish improvisations on the Teatro d'amore (all-Monteverdi) recording by this group, and who proved last night not only a great virtuoso of his instrument but also a talented comedian and even — briefly — singer.
If there is any fault to be found with this program, it was their decision to depart from the printed program which I suspect led to some audience confusion. Although an insert in the program provided texts and translations, they presented the pieces in a slightly different order, and there was at least one vocal number (not including the generous encores) that did not seem to be in the texts or listed in the program — unless the program was in error in describing something as solely an instrumental piece. In addition — and this is a criticism of the documentation on the Teatro d'Amore recording as well as last night's concert — they are reticent about identifying the sources of some of the instrumental music. According to the printed program, the opening instrumental music coming before Jaroussky's rendition of L'Eraclito amoroso by Barbara Strozzi was to be "Improvisation: La Dia Spagnola." No composer identified. So I was surprised to encounter the familiar strains of the Prelude to Monteverdi's opera, "L'Orfeo," albeit rearranged for this ensemble, and truncated for the occasion. Similarly, in the album booklet, certain instrumental music is attributed to Monteverdi without source documentation. Extended sleuthing on my part revealed that some of the instrumental music was taken from interludes in "L'Orfeo," and one extended dance sequence was extracted from the 8th Book of Madrigals. I don't know why they are so reluctant to name their sources.
But getting back to last night's concert, I thought it was all quite magnificent. Jaroussky sang several of the solos from the Teatro d'amore recording as well as less familiar numbers by Strozzi, Sances, and Melli. His closing number from the printed program, a fantastic setting of Psalm 150 by Monteverdi, was a dream come true for me to hear in live performance, as I have his recording of this on a rather obscure imported disc of Monteverdi sacred music from very early in his career, and it was wonderful to hear his more mature thoughts on how it should go in collaboration with Pluhar, whom I consider a true genius of early music performance. (Seek out her various recordings on the Alpha label – scrumptious!)
In the purely instrumental numbers, each of the members of the ensemble was given opportunities to shine, and they made the most of them.
The encores gave the ensemble a chance to clown around a bit. On the recording, Jaroussky & company subject the wonderful Monteverdi song "Ohime ch'io cado" to a jazzy rendition. During the main part of the concert, they performed it "straight." For the encore, they jazzed it up, and Jaroussky took up some of the mannerisms of a pop singer, gyrating to the music, gesturing broadly, etc. And the final "mock" duet with Sherwin was priceless.
I hope this one-off visit will be repeated in the future, as Jaroussky and Pluhar have been pioneers in uncovering worthy music of the period. Jaroussky has a new recital recording coming out in November on Virgin featuring arias by Caldara which should be worth seeking out. Of his recent releases, I especially esteem the recording of arias by J.C. Bach. I wish some of our other early music performing groups would take the initiative of bringing him to New York for collaborations. And, most importantly, that City Opera would attempt to get him for one of their baroque opera revivals. He is a frequent participant in recordings of that repertory – a new Vivaldi opera with him in the cast is also due in November — and last night's performance showed his histrionic gifts. And Pluhar! We need to hear more of her as well. I hope Zankel brings her back with these musicians for future concerts.