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Sara Mingardo/Accademia degli Astrusi, Wigmore Hall, London, ***; Amore, Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, **


The Venetian contralto Sara Mingardo is one of a kind, and the nearest approximation to her clarion sound is to be found in the recordings of countertenor James Bowman in his prime; down in the baritone register her voice has masculine firmness, and when she opens up at the top her timbre is thrilling.

At the Wigmore she was accompanied by the Accademia degli Astrusi in a series of cantatas by Pergolesi, Galuppi, and Vivaldi, plus a Handel aria so far unassigned to any of his operas.

One could see how closely cognate Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’ was with his famous ‘Stabat mater’, and Mingardo delivered its plangent suspensions with a rolling evenness of tone. The emotional switchback of Galuppi’s ‘La scusa’ had the unintended result of showing the limitations of her palette of vocal colour, but in Vivaldi’s ‘Nisi Dominus’ - written for his convent girls to sing - she produced some lovely echo effects; a shame her violinists weren’t up to the same standard.

Meanwhile in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall - a pleasant chamber-music space which should be capitalised on - a singing quartet called Amore was launching its new Cd.

The story of its emergence ticks all the right record-company boxes: over coffee in Starbucks, two Warners execs were discussing how to find ‘a fresh, commercial, and totally British’ classical group; overhearing them, Royal College of Music tutor James Longford suggested that four of his students would fit the bill; after a summer studded with television appearances they now have a six-Cd deal. ‘No dumbing down, no gimmicks, just a fresh collection of astonishing talent’, is what the PR handout says.

Well, fairly astonishing. This performance came across like an end-of-term music-school romp, unquestionably fresh but very rough at the edges: though their voices are still only half formed, I doubt if any of them has the makings of a top-flight opera singer.

They can clown and do excellent barbershop, however, and they certainly have charm. But they don’t listen to each other as real quartets do, and they have not yet found their own unified sound.

If these kids can make it big, the conservatoires house plenty more, and better, who could follow in their footsteps - provided they choose their Starbucks with care.