What a difference a vowel makes: from the setting of the Seine(?) to the the bidding of the three grey seas...er, Gracies? Oh, Graces...Dryden and his contemporaries took a terrible pummelling in the recital of Purcell airs and duets by Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky.
There were more than a few 'Allo, 'Allo moments. But any verse-mangling from Germany's leading countertenor and his French counterpart can be forgiven for the shivering, quivering press of consecutive semitones at the final cadence of "My Dearest, My Fairest".
Such felicity, however momentary, could not have been anticipated from two singers so different in tone and style. Scholl's default vowel sound is a short "o" (as in "Hot"), Jaroussky's a long "e" (as in "Heat"). One is a Dürer voice, clear, still and serious, the other a Watteau, prettily poised on a beribboned swing. Scholl is the sophisticate, Jaroussky the sensualist. But his sweet high register and easy melismas were crucial in a programme of artful compromise and multiple transpositions. "Sound the Trumpet" aside, much of what we now accept as countertenor repertoire was intended for high tenors. Indeed, you could argue that the ultimate Purcell countertenor duet is the one written by his teacher, John Blow, on Purcell's death.
The Purcell whom Scholl and Jaroussky chose to celebrate was the man of theatres, guild halls and court, not the self-questioning penitent. Scholl's rangy, thoughtful performance of "O Solitude" was the closest we got to introversion, "Sweeter than Roses" the closest he got to sexual abandon. Only one devotional song was featured – Jaroussky's blithe but unintelligible "Evening Hymn" – and this was decorated with two violins. For the rest, it was greatest hits from Come, ye sons of Art, The Fairy Queen, King Arthur and Hail, Bright Cecilia, with Scholl digging deep into his chest for the sly seductions of "One Charming Night" and Jaroussky shimmering through the "Entrance of Night".
In a programme where all ears were on the singers, Ensemble Artaserse's violins, viola, recorder and oboe players highlighted the French influence on the British Orpheus in a flurry of flattements (bending of the notes) and notes inégales (bending of the rhythm). The fun stopped with them. Oblivious to the genius and variety of the ground basses, Christine Plubeau (viola da gamba, inset) and Richard Myron (bass viol) favoured magnolia legato and beige pizzicato, while Yoko Nakamura alternated between organ and harpsichord with scant regard to the specific effects of either. The suites followed a strict format, with recorders added at the repeats. The Fairy Queen chaconne was deodorised, and only in the flinty tremolo of the "Cold Genius" scene (modelled on Lully's Iphise and performed by Scholl as an encore) was the pungency of Purcell's instrumentation realised. With a language coach and a different continuo team, this could have been thrilling. As it was, it was beguiling in very little bits.
Time moves strangely at the Barbican. Within 24 hours we had sped forward to the virtuosic agonies and blisses of Handel's heroines and the spark and snap of Porpora and Veracini's overtures. Like Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli shared her recital with a younger singer, countertenor Franco Fagioli, whose heroic gleam and bite held true over two octaves in a selection of arias from Giulio Cesare. Unlike Scholl, she also shared it with an orchestra who understand the rhetorical impact of repetition, vary their attack and dynamics, and play with wit and imagination. Led by Julia Schröder, the Kammerorchester Basel gave a scintillating performance; Bartoli was more scintillating still, her ability to inhabit the most extreme emotions as dazzling as her stamina.
"Scherza in mar" (from Lotario) was a giddy spin over the bluest of seas, "Ah! mio cor!" (from Alcina) a heartbreaking wail of desolation and disbelief. Impeccably researched and executed, every semiquaver popping with character, the breath control simply staggering, Bartoli's recitals redeem the word "diva".
Anna Picard buckles up for a Wagnerian battle between sex and spirituality in Tim Albery's new production of Tannhauser