MUSIC / An end to early frosts cold comfort: Nick Kimberley on the week's offerings, ancient and modern

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The Independent Culture
Early music concerts can be frosty, but there was warm intimacy in last week's Wigmore Hall recital by Capriccio Stravagante. Nothing capricious or extravagant, simply music that radiates an infectious pleasure. In this first of three concerts, the flexible ensemble fielded a trio for songs by Monteverdi, Charpentier, Lully et al. Directing from the harpsichord, Skip Sempe was content to leave centre-stage to Jay Bernfeld's viola da gamba and the mezzo Guillemette Laurens.

She is not one of those 'Fragile: do not vibrate' baroque singers. The voice is ample, the bold ornamentations retaining the feel of improvisation. Between songs, she seemed to be having throat problems, yet the singing had vigour and confidence. Jay Bernfeld has charisma, and is clearly enraptured by the sounds produced in the free flow of his playing. In the right hands, baroque performance can be joyously open-hearted.

A mezzo of darker timbre, Elena Zaremba makes an impressive Carmen in the Covent Garden revival of Nuria Espert's production (sponsors: Daiwa Europe Ltd and the Linbury Trust). It would help if she had decent vocal support. Richard Margison's Don Jose is sound but unremarkable, an unlikely figure to turn Carmen's eye; and while Gino Quilico has some swagger, his Escamillo lacks finesse. With Marie McLaughlin unusually loose as Micaela, it is left to Zaremba to carry the show.

Whether speaking or singing, the voice has a heavy sensuality, not always idiomatic but with enough libido to eat Don Jose and Escamillo for breakfast. She gets shapely support from Jacques Delacote's brisk and bustling conducting, but Carmen can rarely have been received with such chilly enthusiasm.

Karita Mattila has opera house experience a-plenty, so it was a disappointment to find her so constrained in recital at the Wigmore Hall last Thursday. She seemed wary of any expansiveness to match her bold costumes - unusually, she changed during the interval. The problem is not vocal: she has a rich lower register, and a certain tautness at the top of her range has its dramatic effect. She and her accompanist, Ilmo Ranta, were at their best in Sibelius, his early Arioso finding just the right melancholy lassitude in Mattila's timbre.

Mattila looked great, often sounded beautiful, yet seemed confined in the hardly cavernous Wigmore Hall. The members of Kronos look ordinary, hardly bother to address themselves to the audience, yet demand attention. It's partly a matter of amplification, but there's more to it than that. To close the Motorola Festival of American Music, Kronos brought five new works to the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week: not the toughest pieces, yet still end-to-end new music, and the audience was minutely attentive.

It helps if you play a work as genial as Michael Daugherty's Elvis Everywhere. There is critical resistance to music that makes you laugh, but there is nothing wrong in pleasing the crowd with something inventive and amusing. Lee Hyla's Howl is less successful. On tape, Allen Ginsberg reads his poem Howl as the strings twitch and scurry. The trouble is, Ginsberg - even in a reading as perfunctory as this - is so capaciously emotional that the strings are miniaturised into irrelevance.

Capriccio Stravagante: next concert 29 April Wigmore Hall (071-935 2141). 'Carmen': in rep at Royal Opera (071-240 1911) to 20 May

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