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Academy of Ancient Music: In Stil Moderno

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As the empty concert hall on Wednesday evening resounded to the second of the Academy of Ancient Music's live-streamed series of 2021, there was something oddly consoling in composer Barbara Strozzi’s melancholy lyrics during an impeccable performance of works from the golden age of Venetian music. Sentiments such as ‘Every sadness soothes me, every sorrow sustains itself’ seemed to point up trials of life confronted, the fragility of human existence, and indeed of Venice itself where even the central figure in the concert, Dario Castello, had himself perished in the Great Plague of 1630.

Not much is known about Castello’s life, except that his Sonate Concertante published in two editions (1621 and 1629) were enormously influential on his contemporaries, and sustained their impact long after his death. They were obviously composed to display instrumental flamboyance to maximum effect, and the Academy deployed selections from them interspersed with vocal work by Strozzi and by one-time colleague of Castello at St Mark’s Basilica, Claudio Monteverdi.

Academy of Ancient Music, Picture Patrick Harrison (46204835)
Academy of Ancient Music, Picture Patrick Harrison (46204835)

Barbara Strozzi’s work on themes of love, betrayal and loss was written entirely for the voice, and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston’s delivery was both striking and compelling. The rising star’s dramatization of l’Eraclito Amoroso and the affectingly tragic Lagrime Mie were close to the operatic. Strozzi’s lyrics are written from a male perspective, but as the programme notes pointed out, ‘in C17th Venice a soprano voice did not necessarily equate to a female identity.’

Violinist Bojan Ĉiĉić and Steven Devine directing from the harpsichord were joint towers of strength in the selections from Castello’s Libro Secondo, all of which demand the highest musicianship with many passages requiring formidable virtuosity from each member of the consort.

Helen Charlston returned to perform beautifully two works by Monteverdi, Si dolce e’il tormento and Et è pur dunque vero, pieces the composer called ‘scherzi’ or ‘jests’. In reality, however, and as AAM member Joseph Crouch remarked, ‘they are nothing of the sort.’

Academy of Ancient Music (46204838)
Academy of Ancient Music (46204838)

Their subjects of disappointed or unrequited love (‘Foolish is the heart that trusts in a beautiful woman’) share the darkness in some of those compositions Chopin also called ‘Scherzi’ and which are no joke at all, especially for those trying to play them!

The highlighting of different instruments, symphonic modes in different tempi, expressive and dramatic forms pointing to later genres such as the Fado and mainstream opera; the Academy of Ancient Music went a long way in a concert of little more than an hour’s duration to demonstrate that the inscription on the title page of Castello’s edition, ‘In the Modern Style’ was, for each of these composers, truly justified.


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