The Wigmore Hall audience was transported back to 18th century Italy for Andreas Scholl's recital programme. Focusing on the Baroque cantata, an intimate song form which explores ideas of love and loss, the evening also presented a number of chamber works: as the programme explained, concerts would often use these to build anticipation for the appearance of the star vocalist, yet these were certainly not lacking in interest. These formal concert works were framed by Venetian gondola songs, providing another glimpse of how the voice was used during this period.

Andreas Scholl © James McMillan | Decca
Andreas Scholl
© James McMillan | Decca

Salvatore Lanzetti was crucial in establishing the cello as a virtuoso instrument, proving it was capable of more than just a continuo role. Full of double stops and scurrying scales, his Sonata in G is a pleasant work, more significant in historical value than its musical craft. The third movement, the most interesting of the four, possesses an almost Romantic intensity, with an impassioned cello soliloquy. In this performance, the ensemble never felt fully settled: cellist Marco Frezzati's playing was often behind the beat, with tuning issues and 'squeaks' intruding into his playing.

Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in C RV82 saw mandolin substitute for violin. Avi Avital immediately took the role of leader, transforming the trio sonata into soloist and accompaniment rather than a collaborative effort. His bright sound sometimes became overbearing: while the Larghetto central movement certainly didn't lack expressive depth, a touch more subtlety was needed. Although attractive and buoyant, this performance lacked the character necessary to bring the work to life.

In Scarlatti's cantata M'ha diviso il cor dal core, a jilted lover tells of their betrayal. A scene in three parts, the emphasis is firmly on the voice, with uninspired and perfunctory accompaniment. Andreas Scholl unfolded the composer's arched phrases with a rich, ripe voice, its depth brightened with a shimmer of vibrato. His long-breathed lines unfolded the text in a captivating manner, resulting in a polished performance of a rather formulaic work.

The first of the gondolier songs, L'occasion delle mei pene, challenged the conception that pieces within this genre should be simple. Numerous harmonic surprises and a broad expressive range meant that this serenade was both charming and sophisticated, with a playful second stanza as the singer persuades his lover for forgiveness. The memorable tune of La biondina in gondoleta has been treated to numerous harmonisations from composers including Beethoven. Here, it received an affectionate arrangement from Scholl, concluding with a duet between lute and soprano mandolin. Semplicetta e la farfala, the final gondolier song on the programme, portrayed the genre as a virtuoso vehicle, with delicate scale runs and other means of vocal display to depict the singer's unsuccessful attempts to impress women.

In Antonio Caldara's Da tuoi lumi e dal coro, the singer beseeches his lover to satisfy his desires. The fruity darkness of Scholl's voice was particularly effective in the second movement, a lamenting recitative as the singer begs for recognition of his constancy. At the forefront of the texture once again, Avital had a tendency to rush. His attempt to highlight instrumental virtuosity was not entirely successful: lutenist and harpsichordist were barely audible, and the cello playing was far from flawless.

Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in G minor RV85 was perhaps the most successful of the works for instruments alone. Performed with flair and grandeur, the ensemble's use of dynamics was most effective. The frantic finale was rushed, but this performance was by far the most engaging.

Handel's lengthy cantata Sento la che ristretto was by far the most finely crafted work on the programme – a marvel, considering that this was written during a year in which the composer produced around 100 chamber cantatas. The expressive quality of the vocal writing meant that it was satisfying as a piece of music as well as a vehicle for solo display. Unfortunately, Scholl was beginning to tire by this point: his tone thinned over the course of the work, and his performance lost its polish.

Caldera's Vaghe luci demanded Scholl's last reserves of strength, and those of the other performers too. The ensemble did not seem to be fully engaging with one another, diminishing the impact of the expressive states painted by text and music. The tongue-in-cheek final verse brought the concert to an end on a light note, bringing the evening to a fitting conclusion.