MUSIC / Broadening the mind: Musica Transalpina - Almeida Theatre

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The Independent Culture
'M usica Transalpina' ('Music from across the Alps'), originally the title of an English anthology of Italian madrigals, acquired new shades of meaning at the Almeida Opera Festival's two Thursday evening concerts. In the first, the intriguingly named I Fagiolini ('The Kidney Beans', apparently an undergraduate joke that stuck) gave an interestingly selected and well-balanced programme of mostly German and Italian secular vocal pieces, which showed how trans-Alpine influences worked in both directions during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In a series of short introductions, I Fagiolini's director Robert Hollingworth steered ears in the right directions, and even provided an unforced chuckle or two. But the proof was in the singing, and after a little unsteadiness in the opening of Schutz's Feritevi viperete mordaci ('Strike, you biting little vipers'), the ensemble soon settled into the lively, characterful and stylish manner familiar from their recordings. The final item was revelatory. When Giaches de Wert is remembered today it is usually (to borrow Hollingworth's neat encapsulation) as 'a kind of second division Monteverdi'. I Fagiolini's radiant performance of Valle, che dei lamenti miei ('Valley, full of my lamenting') showed better than any verbal argument just how perilous it is to trust received opinions - in every aspect a magnificent finale.

Balance in the second programme - Richard Bernas and Music Projects' 20th-century 'Musica Transalpina' compilation - was more questionable. Schoenberg's Serenade does contain some uniquely beautiful writing, but whether the inspiration is elastic enough to stretch to well over half an hour is another matter. In retrospect it seemed to have taken up most of the programme, even though the pieces that framed it, Franco Donatoni's Arpege and Alexander Goehr's The Deluge, are hardly miniatures. Music Projects played it elegantly aud sympathetically, but for me the high point came not in baritone Nigel Leeson-Williams's rendition of the Petrarch setting, well though he coped with the angular vocal lines, but in the haunting clarinet solos of the dance movement - truly lovely playing by Nicholas Cox.

Even from the other side of the vast Schoenbergian expanse, memories of Donatoni's lucid, fastidious Arpege were strong enough to allow comparisons with Goehr's The Deluge, a piece which at first sounds tougher and more demanding, but whose involvement with Da Vinci's fragmentary text deepens as it progresses. The ending, in which a quiet, unsupported violin line is suddenly snuffed out, is especially haunting. After all this, Michael Finnissy's new Various Nations seemed a very light dessert, but while the combination of a gloriously snooty Victorian travelogue with Finnissy's sequence of folk-flavoured fantasies struck few sparks, the music provided an atmospheric background to Eleanor Bron's magnificent matriarchal narrative.