For their collaboration with the 2017 Auckland Arts Festival, Chamber Music New Zealand pushed the boundaries of their usual programming by inviting L’Arpeggiata, an ensemble that has tackled a wide range of early music but has also made a big impact with their revelatory application of jazz to 17th century Italian music, particularly effectively in Monteverdi. Their Auckland show was dedicated to a very different 17th century composer, Henry Purcell, whose work was delicately reharmonised and reinterpreted through the application of improvisatory jazz techniques. Examples from Purcell’s corpus of vocal music alternated with instrumental numbers from the same composer and his Italian contemporaries in an 85-minute programme without intervals. Pieces were often performed without any halt in between, some bridges between them being so subtle it almost seemed as if they'd been composed that way.

Purcell was a frequent utiliser of the ground bass or basso ostinato, a short pattern in the bass parts that recurs throughout a piece and underpins the work structurally. This concert showed that, as well as being an ideal base for Purcell to weave his expressive and/or intricate melodies, the ground bass can also be a fertile harmonic foundation for jazz improvisations. In Baroque-era Italy, improvising and devising new themes to be heard over the same repeating bass pattern was a popular practice and this spirit lives on in L’Arpeggiata’s admittedly more modern-sounding interpretations. The instrumental movements by other composers (Maurizio Cazzati and Nicola Matteis) were also characterised by the recurring ground bass over which the musicians improvised in both Baroque and jazz styles.

Christina Pluhar led effortlessly from the theorbo, her ensemble an intriguing mix of the baroque and the modern like the music itself. Baroque violin and Renaissance-era cornetto sat alongside jazz clarinet, piano, even a melodica and a traditional Persian drum. Gianluigi Trovesi on clarinet was a highlight in every one of his solo turns, lending a folksy element to many of his utterances and playing a leading role in guiding the beautifully expressive version of Music for a while. Elsewhere, a certain competitive spirit arose between his and double bassist Boris Schmidt’s solos to genuinely electrifying effect. Francesco Turrisi’s piano improvisations were generally lower-octane affairs, an appropriately morose presence in the more melancholic numbers. Vital support was given by percussionist Sergey Saprychev who also delivered a jaw-droppingly proficient and physically acrobatic several-minute long drum solo in the second half. On the baroque side, Doron Sherwin’s gorgeous-sounding cornetto was employed as an exciting obbligato to Strike the viol and he and violinist Veronika Skuplik provided plenty of virtuoso thrills throughout.

The majority of the programme focused on Purcell's vocal music, so thankfully, the vocal performances were as engrossing as the instrumental. It is difficult to categorise Vincenzo Capezzuto’s voice; it is a startlingly androgynous falsetto, a reedy sound that turns white in its higher register. If not a totally attractive sound, he employs it with total immersion in the text and styles required. He made the bossa nova-influenced Man is for the woman made lively and amusing and An Evening Hymn charming in its simple sincerity (despite the rather busy accompaniment). The only drawback was the somewhat slushy diction at speed; while the humour could be detected in Capezzuto’s delivery, something was lost when the words weren’t clear. Celine Scheen has the more conventionally classical voice but took it to the next level in terms of intensity. O, let me weep (in the most Purcellian arrangement of the whole performance) was achingly felt and deeply moving while sheer joy infused the melismatic writing of A Prince of glorious race decended. Scheen lacked nothing in technical facility in these moments and is a master of colouring a phrase to achieve maximum emotional impact. She daringly took advantage of the amplification by fining her voice down to a mere whisper or groan in the most intense moments of the anguished songs.

Not every number was equally successful (the lounge music-like arrangement of Dido’s Lament robbed it of some of its musical power despite Scheen’s heartrending contribution) but overall the arrangements retained the essential character of the pieces while providing the musicians the ideal platform on which to extrapolate from the material.  While maybe not for the musical puritans, this was the perfect showcase for an exceptional group of musicians to demonstrate their formidable technical and interpretative talents and to respectfully give some new vitality to the magical works of Purcell.


You can read our recent interview with Christina Pluhar here.