Barbara Strozzi must have been one hell of a singer. She wrote prolific amounts of her own material and had much of it published (one of only a handful of 17th-century women to do so): her works are challenging even for the best Baroque singers of today. In this afternoon’s Proms at... Cadogan Hall, Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores initially struggled to get to grips with Strozzi's extreme changes in dynamics and tempo and how to project the words into Cadogan Hall... but came out triumphant in the end.

Mariana Flores © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Mariana Flores
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

The concert contained four of Strozzi’s works described as “cantatas”: these are something between madrigals and fully blown opera scenes, all written around the defining preoccupation of 17th-century poetry and music: the pangs of love and the cruelties of one’s mistress (oddly enough, the words always come from a male viewpoint). What makes you sit up and listen is the frequency and suddenness of the shifts in pace and mood: one moment, we can be on a gentle lament on the stereotypical four note descending scale, but we can change in a heartbeat to rage, despair or back to the heartbroken lament.

Flores’ voice is equipped with all the facilities needed to make the most of this music: she has a lovely basic timbre, she has plenty enough power, her intonation never falters and she has the agility to operate at dizzying pace. And yet the first cantata, L’amante segreto, detailing the pangs of a lover who will die rather than let his affections be known, lacked continuity: it was as if Flores was searching for the level at which the notes should be pitched and her phrasing betrayed a certain lack of conviction that she had found it correctly. There was imperfect connection between the singer and her backing band, Cappella Mediterranea, led by Leonardo García Alarcón – also Argentinian, also a specialist in the period and a regular collaborator with Flores.

But these wobbles were banished for the second cantata, Che si può fare, another lament of the lover in the face of “pitiless destiny”, and apart from a continuing lack of clarity in consonants, the wobbles did not return. The lament over the four note progression took on lilt and plangency; solos from cornet and then recorder suffused the hall with a melancholy that Flores was able to pick up and develop, switching to the rage against the Furies of the underworld before returning to resignation. For Sino alla morte, she artfully mastered smooth gear changes between fiery anger and lyrical tenderness: the ending, in which the lover pleads that “all the seas in the world cannot put out the sparks that glow within lovers” was delivered with almost percussive vigour. Lagrime mie brought in interesting new sounds with a taste of Moorish scales.

Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea © Emilio Tenorio
Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea
© Emilio Tenorio

Between each Strozzi cantata was a contrasting piece on the subject of “Ercole amante”, Hercules in love. Two were by another 17th-century Italian woman, Antonia Bembo, who made her name in France at the court of Louis XIV. These are shorter pieces, the first a rage aria delivered with knowingly enthusiastic fury, the second a lament arranged for recorder (with no voice). Juno’s incandescent anger against Venus in Cavalli’s opera Ercole amante allowed us to compare and contrast Strozzi to the man who was certainly her inspiration (and may have taught her in person). The Cavalli piece doesn’t approach Strozzi’s level of vocal virtuosity or extremes of expression, but the old master has an unerring feel for how to pace a scene dramatically. It made one muse on what treasures we might have seen had Strozzi ever written a full opera.

The biggest treat of all was the generous encore. Accompanied by guitar and theorbo, Flores threw every ounce of Argentinian passion into one of her country’s biggest hits: the zamba Alfonsina y el Mar by Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna. The way it was performed here, you could trace the style directly to Strozzi far more directly than anything in European music: give or take an augmented fifth here or a blue note there, the ways in which the voice is phrased and thoughts are expressed had much in common. It made for an emotional end to a fascinating concert.