Though this concert's first half was framed by sprightly sets of theatre music by Henry Purcell, and interrupted by a moderately interesting violin suite by the 17th-century London-based virtuoso of the instrument Nicola Matteis, this was essentially a programme of vocal monodies and duets. The keyboard-director, Robert King, seemed to acknowledge as much in the pert briskness with which he propelled his King's Consort through five preludial dances from Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge, though the unaccompanied opening of Matteis's Diverse Bizarrie brought some shapely phrasing from Simon Jones.
The focus of the first half, however, was four of Purcell's more florid voice and continuo settings, taken alternately by the long-breathed, full-voiced soprano Carolyn Sampson and the more volatile, incisively toned Rebecca Outram. These ranged from the early but already characteristic devotional song "Sleep, Adam, and take thy rest," by way of two extravagantly penitential William Fuller settings, "Thou wakeful shepherd" and the dramatic "In the black, dismal dungeon of dispair," to the beautiful duet-ode on the death of Queen Mary in 1694, "O dive custos". And here the chastely intertwining melismas of the two sopranos together strikingly anticipated the ambience of this Wigmore Hall concert's second half.
If François Couperin actually completed all nine of his Leçons de Tenèbres, as he claimed, then the disappearance of the last six must be accounted one of the most grievous losses of the high Baroque. Founded in a long French tradition of voice and continuo settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week, which already included ravishing versions by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Couperin's surviving Trois Leçons seem, none the less, to attain a unique sublimity. Indeed, it is hard to describe how a musical setting could be at once so refined in its tone and technique, so serenely removed from its often tortured text, yet so directly, piercingly expressive in its effect.
The means in the first two could not be simpler: arioso settings for solo voice of the biblical verses, interspersed with more florid treatments of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with continuo just of bass viol – the plangent Richard Campbell – and chamber organ. Sampson evoked the desolation of Jerusalem in the first with elegiac amplitude, Outram depicting the city's corruption in the second with a more nervous edge.
The third Leçon, laid out as a sequence of solos and duets, culminated in an interpretation of the traditional appeal to Jerusalem to "turn to the lord your God" of a restrained yet almost agonised ecstasy. At the end, a capacity audience sat silent for a moment, as if stunned.
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