The title reflecting a countertenor aria from Henry Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia, “’tis Nature’s Voice” was the overall theme of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, which drew to a spectacular close on Saturday. Attracting some high-calibre soloists and ensembles, this year has seen concerts by the Gabrieli Consort, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, and the Choir of Westminster Abbey, among others, all on a theme of nature. Securing the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, undoubtedly one of the world’s finest Baroque music ensembles, and soprano Carolyn Sampson proved to be a real coup for the festival’s final concert.

Carolyn Sampson © Marco Borggreve
Carolyn Sampson
© Marco Borggreve

This concert’s particular theme was “Baroque on the High Seas”. Whatever might be said about the restrictions of the rules of harmony and counterpoint of the day, it did not stop composers from painting a musical picture – not quite the Impressionism of Debussy, Ravel, and the like, but certainly impressionism of sorts when the music conveys the drama of small boats and giant waves, and, in metaphor, the gamut of human emotion. The composers in question – Vivaldi, Handel and Telemann – each developed their own way of musically painting nautical scenes, adding into them human love and melancholy, and the way in which their compositions were interspersed with each other allowed the audience to discern their unique styles.

The concert began with the aria “Siam nave all’onde” (“We are ships on the waves”) from Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade, a bracing piece in which those madly in love are compared to ships being held back by winds, ultimately being overcome by waves of pride. With seemingly impossibly fast runs for both singer and orchestra, Vivaldi’s writing here is a real test, but the orchestra and Carolyn Sampson remained steadfastly together (and expressive!), and Sampson demonstrated an enviable technical consistency in the considerable melismatic passages.

There then followed three arias from as many Handelian operas, all with a nautical theme. “Finchè un zeffiro soave” (from Ezio), in which Fulvia sings of being unafraid of the tempestuous sea because a gentle breeze will hold it back, contrasted nicely with the briskness of the preceding Vivaldi. Sampson, and a gently restrained orchestra, perfectly encapsulated the vulnerability of Rosmene (Imeneo) in “Io son quella navicella” (“I am that little boat”), whilst displaying some seriously impressive coloratura in the last of the three arias, “Scherza in mar la navicella” (“The little boat plays in the sea”).

Telemann’s Suite in C major (“Hamburger Ebb und Fluth”) offered an entirely different take on the theme. A ten-movement suite written in 1723 for the founding of Hamburg’s Admiralty, it celebrates and reflects not only the physical characters of the sea, but also the mythological, with movements such as Harlequinade “Der schertzende Tritonus” (“The playful Triton”) and Canarie “Die lustigen Bots Leute” (“The jolly boatmen”). It was a real treat to hear this masterpiece, by a composer unfairly overlooked all too often, and to hear it played with such good humour. The orchestra gave this already characterful suite a heady boost with its energetic playing.

Carolyn Sampson returned to the stage for the final item, Vivaldi’s glorious motet Sum in medio tempestatum, comparing the Christian’s journey through life to a ship tossed about in stormy seas – it seems that water could find its way into church music, as well as (at least in Vivaldi’s Venice) churches themselves. A sensitively and magically delivered middle aria (“Semper maesta, sconsolata”) preceded the grand finale, a gloriously thrilling, coruscating “Alleluia”.

The orchestra, bar those musicians for whom seats or stools were necessary, stood for the performance, which allowed for its members’ unbridled passion for their craft to shine through. Anne Katharina Schreiber showed perfection as orchestral leader: directing from the front desk of the violins, her consummate musicianship and clear direction enabled the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra to demonstrate super-slick ensemble work throughout. Carolyn Sampson’s voice was eminently suited to the pieces on offer, and they allowed her to demonstrate her full-bodied sound in every register. It is not often that two stars of the Baroque world collide so spectacularly (and so conveniently in London), and it was an absolute privilege to be there.