At first glance, a concert of relatively unknown Marian devotions in the cavernous Barbican may not make for an intimate evening, even when presented by one of the most at-ease countertenors of his generation. But Andreas Scholl and the Accademia Bizantina, led expertly by violinist Alessandro Tampieri, achieved just that.  Accademia Bizantina has become associated with the rediscovery of little known works, and its players were in their element. Musicologist Bernardo Ticci painstakingly curated the impressive programme to complement Vivaldi's Stabat mater with little know works by 18th-century Neapolitan composers.

Andreas Scholl © James McMillan
Andreas Scholl
© James McMillan

This period was not only one of concentrated musical talent in the Italian city, but also coincided with a resurgence of religious devotion, particularly associated with the Virgin Mary. Pasquale Anfossi's Salve regina is refreshingly unfussy and a perfect counter to the heart-rending yearning of Nicola Porpora's Il trionfo della divina giustizia nei tormenti e morte di Gesu Cristo, which signalled a change in the dominance of melody. The wonderful partnership of Scholl with the Accademia well reflected the almost instrumental vocal line, and the quasi-operatic articulation and ornamentation suited Scholl perfectly. Leonardo Vinci's two oratorios are the only surviving works of this type from the composer, and great justice was done to the two arias, particularly by the impressive lower strings.

The affair could so easily have fallen into the trap of troppo dolorosa. The grieving mother is central to the texts, the singer apostrophising to her and, for the arias from Vinci's Oratorio a 4 Voci con stromenti, embodying Maria herself. Scholl himself highlighted in his notes the pivotal moment in Vivaldi's Stabat mater where the singer, looking on at the mater dolorosa, appeals to those present quis non posset contristari... (Who would not grieve with her?). In fact, this supplication ran through every phrase of Scholl's line, mirrored in the yearning pull of the excellent ensemble. Far from an introverted, abstract performance, the audience was invited in to these unfamiliar works, part of the grieving prcess themselves, in a display of intimacy well suited to a modern interpretation of the theological narrative. Mary's pain is, after all, grief for the universal Messiah and the fate of mankind as well as for her son, and these are troubled times.

At times this intimacy went so far as to informality – one felt that one had stumbled in to a rehearsal. Scholl is clearly still not quite comfortable with every part of these new works; at times he felt glued to the copy, lacking the lyricism so prevalent in the Vivaldi, an oft-trotted out party piece. But this also went the other way; the Porpora and Vinci in particular are rooted in the seconda pratica and stile moderna traditions, and Scholl seemed to be continually experimenting with how best to help the music serve the text. Subtle ornamentation in da capos felt organic and spontaneous. Here was a singer still clearly enjoying and discovering the nuances of the works. Scholl is a master of word painting, and sublime suspensions (Vivaldi's “tanto supplico” particularly moving) and sumptuously soft repetitions were breathtaking in their subtlety.

These works are very much collaborations, and the Accademia did not disappoint. Their opening Sinfonia to Porpora's Il trionfo was measured and delicate, the shadowed violin and harpsichord beautiful balanced. Their numbers without Scholl were less dramatic, but no less poised; Vivaldi's notoriously difficult Violin Concerto in G minor RV332 was tackled by Tampieri, who played with great virtuosity but felt unsteady in places, with elements of the pacing just off. Scholl himself struggled in achieving impetus and resonance in his lower resonance, which was exacerbated perhaps by unfamiliarity. But these are minor gripes; so much of this programme hit the right notes, and it was a joy to hear undiscovered music played with such expertise, vivacity, and sensitivity in equal measures. A fitting devotion indeed.