We greatly admired the recording of Vivaldi's Griselda by Ensemble Matheus, which even made it onto Jens's Best Recordings of 2006 list. After a concert on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, the French historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble came to the Library of Congress. It was expected to be the best concert on the Library's free concert series this year, much as the concert by the Venice Baroque Orchestra had been last season. The group's incisive style of playing, led by the animated and virtuosic violinist Jean-Christophe Spinosi (pictured), did not disappoint.
The performing profile of Ensemble Matheus favors opera: before this pair of American concert appearances, the group played for Fanny Ardant's production of André Messager's Véronique at the Châtelet last month. In keeping with that concentration, much of this program was devoted to a series of opera arias with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, with whom they recorded Vivaldi's Orlando furioso. Larmore reprised one of the mind-blowing arias from her triumphant turn as Alcina in that recording, the sorceress's final piece, calling on the furies for vengeance as her magical island is destroyed. It started off a little too fast, but once Spinosi had applied the brake it was a tour de force, ending on a hair-raising high note.
Vivaldi, Orlando furioso
Vivaldi, La verità in cimento
Larmore also brought her oaken-toned voice to excerpts from a number of male roles, all with praiseworthy agility and accuracy in the numerous runs and with equal power in high and low registers, most strikingly in Handel's Doppo notte for Ariodante. Larmore's final selection was also Handel, Rinaldo's Venti, turbini, and one could see the challenging part the composer demanded from the castrato Niccolini, in the first edition on display in the entryway to the auditorium. A beautiful selection of arias for Caesar from Handel's Giulio Cesare recalled Larmore's achievements in that role on disc and at the Met (thanks to the commenters for the correction -- Ed.). The only unconvincing aria was the French version of Gluck's Che farò senza Euridice, which felt like it was tacked on to the program only to add a little time.
In some ways, the instrumental selections stole the show, especially an absolutely stellar rendition of a Telemann concerto for flute and recorder (E minor, TWV 52:e1). It was a quality of virtuosic playing, from flutist Jean-Marc Goujon, recorder player Luis Beduischi, and Spinosi on solo violin, that is best described by the French word époustouflant, meaning that it left one positively gobsmacked. Fully aware of the folksy overtones of the final movement -- bass drones, fiddle motifs -- the ensemble added the sound of clogging with their feet to the rousing conclusion. Spinosi and his concertmaster, Laurence Paugam, brought similar panache to Vivaldi's double violin concerto (D major, RV 513), taking dramatic liberties with the solo episodes. The Sinfonia from Vivaldi's La fida ninfa offered its own dramatic moment when Spinosi, whose jagged and windmilling conducting style corresponds exactly to the hyper-pointed sound produced by Ensemble Matheus, recovered his dropped baton in perfect time. This pleasing work, even the slow movement of which had a spiky edge, offered considerable promise for the group's next project, performing the complete La fida ninfa around Europe in April and May, with a recording hopefully forthcoming.
Stephen Brookes, A Passionate Embrace of Handel (Washington Post, February 12)
George Loomis, Bait & Switch (New York Sun, February 11)
The next exciting HIP ensembles on the Library of Congress schedule are Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (April 16) and the trio of John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen (April 17). Both concerts are free and begin at 8 pm.
Vivaldi, Nisi Dominus, Philippe Jaroussky, Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi