With pieces from Corelli and Handel building towards an expressive account of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, the Academy of Ancient Music have put together a varied programme which touches on both secular and sacred themes in an evening of luxurious music making of exceptional quality. Charismatic countertenor Tim Mead was able to give us, on the one hand, singing of exceptional technical command, but also of genuine narrative expression, forthright and plangent by turns. Keri Fuge’s generous, bright and dexterous soprano was a constant pleasure, and just as impressive was her sustained dramatic focus, at all times attuned to the emotion of the piece. The AAM, conducted by Christian Curnyn from the harpsichord, played with warmth, poise and elegance. As ever, their instinctive ensemble music making shone with joy, led by the charismatic Bojan Čičić.

Tim Mead © Benjamin Ealovega
Tim Mead
© Benjamin Ealovega

The dark, honeyed harmonies of Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D major came across beautifully at the concert’s opening. Refective and magnificent by turns, the piece gives us moments of high pathos in a slightly pastoral atmosphere, in a series of phrases which seem to build towards expressing something vital before turning away to conclude, repeatedly, in elegant melancholy. 

Keri Fuge’s warm, luscious soprano took centre stage for Handel’s cantata Ah! Che troppo ineguali, a fervent prayer to the Virgin Mary to bring peace to a warring Earth, thought to be inspired by the War of the Spanish Succession which was raging across much of Europe in 1708. Fuge brought seriousness and passion, as well as lyricism, to this prayer, which bewails how unequal mortal voices are when echoed up to heaven – the piece from which this concert draws its overall title. Her lovely diction and perfect Italian allowed this cantata to speak clearly about fear, reverence and the hope of mercy. 

The mood changed significantly for Handel’s subsequent cantata, the playful Il duello amoroso, which hovers somewhere between the artifice of a courtly scene and the expressive drama of opera. The nymph Amaryllis (Fuge) has had a dalliance with the shepherd Daliso (Mead), but has since changed her mind. His impetuous claims over her, and her scornful rejection of him, soon turns into a bigger cosmic argument not all that far from today’s #metoo movement: Amaryllis sings, “Wretched man, do you not realise that the pleasure which today your heart desires must needs be the offspring of my own inclination?”, before going on to reflect: “The pleasure that is not bestowed by an act of pleasure very soon becomes pain.” This aria, “Piacer che non si dona”, was stunningly delivered by Fuge in taut phrasing, with Amaryllis wittily portrayed as a strong, determined character. As the hapless, infuriated Daliso, Mead was in fabulous voice, floating notes effortlessly across the orchestra and revelling in his music with some wonderful ornamentation. Full of calm, centred energy, Mead was able to be dramatically convincing in this tiny, intimate role. The cantata as a whole felt lithe and fresh.

For Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the warm colours of Fuge’s soprano made a lovely pairing with the cool clarity of Mead’s flexible, smooth countertenor, while both showed they could switch naturally and convincingly from the pastoral, playfully erotic mood of Il duello amoroso into Pergolesi’s searching expression of religious grief. Bitter, dissonant trills in the opening Stabat Mater came across as profound emotional painting through music, illustrating not only the pain of bereavement but the unnatural injustice of a parent mourning a child, a death which reverses the natural order. Occasionally some phrasing sounded slightly unusual, but O quam tristis was deeply moving, while Fac ut ardeat blazed with expressive colour. Tim Mead delivered the exceptionally challenging Fac ut portem Christi mortem with perfect focus and uninterrupted concentration, despite a whistling alarm sounding somewhere in the bowels of the theatre: perfect stagecraft, and a performance which commanded similarly uninterrupted attention from us. In its closing section, we could hear clearly how the beauty of Quando corpus relies on its internal echoes of the opening Stabat mater, coupled with an added sense of languor as those earlier, angry expressions of grief give way to a darker, more long lasting sorrow of loss.

To hear the Stabat Mater sung by two singers who seem so deeply aware of the sacredness of this music, and embody it so profoundly in their performance, helps the whole piece to resonate emotionally with us. Too often, concert performances shy away from, or skirt round, the spiritual significance of ecclesiastical music. Mead and Fuge each gave us a pure, searing sound, full of emotion and drama rooted in the text: it is hard to imagine this better sung. As Christian Curnyn accepted the audience’s applause on behalf of the Academy of Ancient Music, he gestured to Pergolesi’s score: a heartfelt gesture from a heartfelt, deeply moving performance.