Piano. Concerto. Opera. The Italian origins of these well-known musical words hint at the enormous influence that country had on the musical world during the Baroque period, when classical music as we know it began to take shape. The scale of this influence was explored last night by Ian Bostridge, tenor and former historian, in the first concert of his year-long residency at the Wigmore Hall. Bostridge’s concert series, entitled ‘Ancient and Modern’, aims to make both audience and performers see works in a new light by the juxtaposition of period and modern performances. The opening concert focussed on the ‘Ancient’, with the English Concert and their Director Harry Bicket joining Bostridge in order to demonstrate how the styles employed by ‘real’ Italian composers like Scarlatti and Vivaldi were adopted by their German contemporaries, such as Venturini and Handel.

First up was the genuinely Italian Alessandro Scarlatti, father of the more famous Domenico. As was customary in his day, Scarlatti’s Sinfonia to his serenata Clori, Dorino e Amore was written to quieten the chattering court before the serious music got underway; the Baroque version of a warm-up act. The English Concert uses period instruments and an authentic number of musicians, stretching the intimate stage of the Wigmore Hall to capacity. The Hall’s generous acoustic suited the ensemble’s sumptuous string sound well, whilst never threatening to bury the delicate sounds of the lute and harpsichord.

Having grabbed our attention with the lively Sinfonia, Bicket led his players straight into Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor with no break, much as the Sinfonia would once have led directly to the rest of Scarlatti’s piece. Katharina Spreckelsen, Principal Oboe of the English Concert, performed with joyful exuberance, stretching her temperamental period instrument past its usual boundaries with consummate ease. The outer movements were breathtaking in their virtuosic briskness, whilst the slow middle movement demonstrated Spreckelsen’s rich tone, despite a tendency to drag in the accompaniment.

Bostridge himself then appeared onstage to sing Scarlatti’s cantata ‘Dall’oscura magion dell’arsa Dite. The cantata tells the tragic tale of Orpheus losing his beloved Euridice for the second time at the mouth of Hades, with the soloist singing both as Orpheus himself and the narrator. Bostridge delivered a historically informed performance, his serious approach to the text suiting the pathos of the legend perfectly. The pure sound at the top of his range complemented the English Concert’s mellow accompaniment, although his rich lower register occasionally came across as too operatic in tone for the intimate chamber piece.

The second half focused on those two Italianate cuckoos in the nest, Handel and Venturini. Despite his name and his use of many Italian compositional techniques, Francesco Venturini was born in Brussels and worked in Hanover. His Sonata No. 9 made full use of Elector Georg Ludwig’s skilful court orchestra, focussing particularly on the extravagant pairs of oboists and bassoonists. The English Consort strings accompanied the excellent woodwind players with sensitivity, although their very sustained sound could have been more playful during the lighter passages.

In contrast to the Italian tone of the evening, Handel’s solo motet Silete Venti begins with an overture in the French style, however the piece continues with a very Italian succession of recitatives and arias. The brisk opening Sinfonia was a final chance for the English Concert to demonstrate their technical bravura, and they did not disappoint. The clamour of instruments was then interrupted by Bostridge’s powerfully sung command for silence, an electrifyingly operatic gesture from the composer who brought the flamboyant Italian opera to London. The text speaks of the joy to be found in Jesus’ love; however Bostridge and Bicket conspired between them to ensure that this was no light-hearted song, occasionally calling upon the music to express far greater emotional turmoil than was to be found in the text. Bostridge's crystal clear diction dazzled in the fast passages, also shining in the moments of beauty to be found in the duets between tenor and oboe. As always with such a didactic concert, there came a time when one forgot to listen for Italian influences and simply enjoyed the music: if only all music history lessons were this enjoyable!