mon 22/04/2024

I Fagiolini, Hollingworth, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - it's not the Messiah | reviews, news & interviews

I Fagiolini, Hollingworth, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - it's not the Messiah...

I Fagiolini, Hollingworth, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - it's not the Messiah...

Festive fun, and fresh discoveries, from an irrepressible ensemble

Handel with care... I Fagiolini at St Martin's

“Nobody likes a Messiah…”, deadpanned Robert Hollingworth, with the timing of a practised stand-up. After a pause, “…more than I do.” At St Martin-in-the-Fields on Friday evening, however, the seasonal blockbuster did not, just for once, feature on the festive menu. Instead, Hollingworth’s ever-enterprising ensemble I Fagiolini served up a savoury and well-spiced alternative to Handel’s ubiquitous staple.

Over little more than an hour, the versatile group – fortified by a posse of agile string players from Brecon Baroque – spanned the late-16th to mid-18th centuries in half-a-dozen stylishly executed pieces with a broadly festive slant. And, in the end, we did manage to hear a few bars of Messiah. 

Pundits have begun to fret again over the – mostly mythical – over-formality of classical concerts. They tend to ignore the way that early-music and period-performance outfits such as I Fagiolini (founded by Hollingworth in 1986) have for decades pioneered lively, audience-friendly approaches to unfamiliar material. In this new programme, “Angels, Shepherds and Demons”, Hollingworth, as the relaxed, wisecracking MC, steered us through a selection of Baroque highlights, and rediscoveries. Together they spotlit both the vocal marvels and the irreverent wit of this inexhaustibly eclectic repertoire. From a Bach advent cantata at the start (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) to a foot-tapping, castanet-clacking 18th-century Spanish Xacara at the close, the entire Christmas cabaret looked and sounded splendid in the surroundings of St Martin’s. But it would have worked in a club, or community centre, too. The director-organist welcomed spontaneous post-aria applause - even pantomime-style audience participation for Cristoforo Caresana’s Christmas cantata La Tarantella). But he did warn that, if we dared to clap in the middle of Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir, “I’ll kill you”.He need not have worried. Spellbinding Monteverdi, above all, allowed the polish and prowess of the six I Fagiolini vocalists to shine. First genial, then glorious, this 1641 setting of the Christmas Vespers text allows festive high spirits (with the violins jauntily quoting his secular madrigal “Chiome d’oro”) to hijack the solemn occasion. The singers (sopranos Rebecca Lea and Ana Beard-Fernandez, mezzo Martha McLorinan, tenors Rory Carver and Matthew Long, bass Charles Gibbs) nicely captured and conveyed the gradual lightening of mood that Hollingworth planned into this musical journey. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland felt suitably grave and tender, with Lea warmly involving in her aria, and Alex Rolton’s full-flavoured cello a perfect foil. Beatus Vir, enhanced by the delicious dual theorbos of Eligio Quintero and Arngeir Hauksson and the skipping, leaping violins of Naomi Burrelll and Kinga Ujszászi, rose to a exhilarating final “Gloria”. Then the compressed a cappella drama of Monteverdi’s 1590s “Rimanti in pace” turned what Hollingworth called a “terrible, terrible poem” of generic lovesickness into an ear-ravishing delight of soaring, expressive lines and audacious harmonic surprises. 

Our plum pudding came in the shape of Caresana’s jovial La Tarantella from 1673: a dance-driven Nativity romp of dozy shepherds, slinky angels and comically inept devils composed by a maestro of the Capella Real in Spanish-ruled Naples. Pointy glowing horns (Charles Gibbs’s magnificently villainous Lucifer and his infernal sidekicks, pictured above), glittery headgear (the flirtily angelic Rebecca Lea and Ana Beard-Fernandez), straw for the sleepy, anorak-clad pastori (pictured below), and even a cut-out sheep, all added to the fun, although Hollingworth’s bold claims for the score seem a little on the generous side. (Maybe unwisely, he prefaced the cantata with a snatch of the rustic pifa interlude from Messiah itself). Still, La Tarantella gave us an endearing bend of lo-tech school-play props, village-hall panto gags – along with sophisticated performances from voices, and players, of character and finesse. Hollingworth finished with the rhythmic fire and zest of Juan Frances de Iribarren’s “Xacara de Navidad”, chattering castanets, pizzicato violins and all: another infectious proof of the musical church door to secular delights that opened, in Italy, Spain and far beyond, when Christmas came around. I Fagiolini’s smartly-wrapped Baroque package held a more-ish assortment of sweet treats. But I’m afraid they did leave me hungry for a meaty main course of – maybe Messiah

Monteverdi’s 'Rimanti in pace' turned what Hollingworth called a 'terrible, terrible poem' into an ear-ravishing delight

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