If you like your Purcell spiced up with some jazz improvisation and Middle-Eastern flavours, Philippe Jaroussky and L’Arpeggiata’s gig was for you. Largely based on their latest recording, their programme at the Wigmore Hall, where L’Arpeggiata held a residency this season, was cleverly devised and performed with suave singing from Jaroussky and inventive playing from the instrumentalists of L’Arpeggiata, led from the theorbo by the inimitable Christina Pluhar.

Christine Pluhar, Philippe Jarouusky and L'Arpeggiata © L'Arpeggiata
Christine Pluhar, Philippe Jarouusky and L'Arpeggiata
© L'Arpeggiata

Entitled “Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell”, the hour-and-a-half continuous programme consisted of some of Purcell’s most popular songs including An Evening Hymn, O solitude, my sweetest choice and “The plaint” and these were interspersed with Baroque instrumental music mainly based on the “ground bass” principle (Maurizio Cazzati’s Ciaccona, Nicola Matteis’s La dia Spagnola and Purcell’s Two in One on a ground et al) which are full of opportunities for a bit of jazzy improvisation. Each set of songs and instrumental pieces was performed without a break, one merging into another seamlessly.

On this occasion, L’Arpeggiata was comprised of nine players: Baroque violin, cornetto, two theorbos, Baroque harp, double bass, percussion, harpsichord and organ. The violin and cornetto would often duel with each other in the instrumental sections or add an ad lib line to a Purcell song; in Strike the viol the cornetto (Doron Sherwin) added lovely counterpoint to the voice. Francesco Turrisi, who is also a jazz pianist, displayed his improvisatory skills on the organ (as well as the melodica at one point!), and the versatile percussionist David Mayoral produced an amazing array of rhythms and timbres just using his hands and fingers (no sticks). At one point in the instrumental interlude, he went on a five-minute solo improvisation on the zarb (a Persian goblet drum) which was utterly spellbinding. How we got there from Purcell’s “One charming night” I have no idea, but it was totally seamless and organic.

To all this, the stylish countertenor Philippe Jaroussky further added a French feel to the Purcell songs. His voice has an extraordinary pure quality and his unforced mezzo range soars beautifully over the ensemble. He has also had a long working relationship with L’Arpeggiata that he is totally at home with their style, and although he sang the serious songs fairly straightforwardly, in some of the more secular pieces, he would give it a bit of a jazzy swing too. For example, An Evening Hymn started in a straight style, but in the final section, the keyboard and drums suddenly struck up a jazz rhythm and the Alleluia was sung with a swing.

So, how did Purcell’s music fare under such treatment? I can understand some early music purists may object to the spicing up of Purcell’s music in this way (there is a bit of the purist in me too). If I pulled apart the programme and discussed each song in detail, I admit I have a few reservations. However, within the context of the whole programme which was remarkably consistent in style, the music was brilliantly and inventively performed and was thoroughly entertaining. As one would expect, Jaroussky sang with finesse throughout, although in some songs he could have brought out more vocal colour. He was most touching in the two songs from The Fairy Queen, “One charming night” and “The plaint”, where he showed emotional depth.

Whether or not Purcell’s music really needs spicing up is debatable, but in this concert Jaroussky and L’Arpeggiata showed that such a fusion approach could work if done with style and musical commitment. Above all, I marvelled at the spontaneity and the inventiveness of the individual performers which was at the heart of their joyous music-making.