Max Emanuel Cenčić is now a musical household word, in Baroque circles anyway; conductor George Petrou and his orchestra Armonia Atenea are equally familiar. A recital featuring these artists was bound to be a popular and critical success. The title of the concert was “Rivalen”, referring to the (supposed?) rivalry between the composers Nicola Porpora and George Frideric Handel, who were both in London in the early 1730s. Two halves of Porpora and Handel were interspersed with orchestral works by Vivaldi.

The small orchestra (strings, theorbo, harpsichord) began with Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 violins, cello and strings, RV522, with a crisp precise opening, a delicate rippling Larghetto and an emphatic, energetic Allegro, showing off the talents of violinists Sergiu Nastasa and Carmen-Otilia Alitei.  The same team provided a dramatic Trio Sonata in D minor, RV 63, a version of “La Follia”, and, in the second half, theorbist Theodoros Kitsos picked up a much tinier instrument for the Mandolin Concerto in C major, RV 425, beguiling the audience into applause after the first movement (to rather embarrassed laughter). They also, of course, provided splendid support for the singer throughout.

Cenčić appeared all in black, with a fabulous sequin-detailed jacket, and a minimum of splashy showmanship; his most overt reaction was a benign smile between arias. The first two arias derived from two of the operas Porpora composed for the London stage, Ifigenia in Aulide (1735) and Arianna in Nasso (1733). The first, “Tu spietato, non sarai” was an all-stops out bravura affair, sung with all-out uncovered tone, full bodied top notes, with spectacular cadenzas at the end of the A section and again at the end of the da capo.  “Nume che reggi ‘l mare” was a slower affair, sung with mostly straight tone and evident feeling. The other Porpora arias derived from earlier and later respectively in the composer’s career. “Torbido intorno al core” from 1726’s Meride e Selinunte was another slower piece, sung with rounded tone with sustained and lovely high notes, followed by “D’esser già parmi” (from Filandro, 1747), another bravura aria displaying Cenčić’s flexibility and general vocal elegance.

After the interval, we had two arias from Handel’s Orlando (1732), “Gia l’ebro mio ciglio”, displaying a slight glitch in the opening note but settling into accurate heartfelt singing with beautiful violin and continuo accompaniment. Orlando’s aria “Cielo! Se tu consenti”, in which he is very cross with Angelica, was then sung with great enthusiasm and exciting cadenzas. Two energetic arias from Arminio concluded the printed program, “Al par della mis sorte” and “Si cadrò, ma sorgerà”. An enthusiastic reception provoked two encores, an aria from Porpora’s Germanico in Germania (1732) and one from La clemenza di Tito (1735) from Adolph Hasse, probably more of a rival to Porpora than Handel had been; Cenčić made the most of this dramatic music. Some folk sitting further back in this (somewhat difficult) venue had some issues with the volume. For most however it was a most exciting and satisfying evening’s performance from all involved.