Concordia/Daneman/Gilchrist/Williams, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Considering the hoo-ha surrounding any new work today, be it never so brief, it’s odd that so little account is taken of the forgotten works which period-performance groups dust off and bring to a high sheen, year after year.

I had not before encountered the Purcellian art-form known as the ‘symphony song’, and it’s a fair bet that most of the enthusiasts who packed the Wigmore Hall for Concordia’s latest foray into the works of that master hadn’t either. Nor had I heard the trio sonatas with which they interlarded them: Purcell wrote 22 of these, and if the two we got were anything to go by, there are 20 more treats in the locker.

To do the vocal honours, Concordia - led by Mark Levy on viola da gamba - had brought in three outstanding singers. Soprano Sophie Daneman - a baroque specialist who is also a whizz at Bernstein - was complemented by tenor James Gilchrist (one of the brightest lights on the oratorio circuit), and by baritone Roderick Williams. This latter singer is an ace Papageno, and currently also one of the few reasons for going to see Kaija Saariaho’s interminable new opera, ‘L’amour de loin’, at the Coliseum. Daneman has a big and forceful sound, Gilchrist’s singing is delicately nuanced, and Williams’s muscular voice could tear the bark off trees - but in the nicest possible way. When they all sang together, it made a gamey meld.

The attraction of the symphony songs is multum in parvo: each solo, duet, chorus, and instrumental interlude is very short, but packed with beauty and invention. There were moments when clouds passed over, and we entered the grave world of ‘Dido’s Lament’, but the general tone was sunlit and celebratory. We also got the first-ever English indictment of the evils of celebrity, in a setting of a poem extolling the quiet life, and threatening doom to those who dwell ‘upon the slippery tops of human state’ and ‘with disdain look down on all/Till their heads turn, and down they fall’; the music had majestic sweep. Meanwhile ‘See where she sits’, on Abraham Cowley’s poem ‘Weeping’, developed a Monteverdian richness and intensity. The musical miracle of the evening was a sonata in which two violins turned an endless succession of discreet contrapuntal somersaults, while the same five-bar ground was repeated 45 times below.