Beyond the usual swathe of carols and other well-loved Christmas concert fare, it’s refreshing to find something both genuinely fresh and festive in December. Cambridge Early Music offered a sumptuous feast of Italian Baroque music as their Christmas gift to their audience, focusing on the pastorale form, which Baroque Italian composers traditionally associated with the shepherds of the Nativity. The scent of mulled wine and homemade mince pies (served, to general delight, in the interval) added to the evening’s warm Christmas atmosphere. Cambridge Early Music concerts often feel like the open meetings of a small private society, with the audience united by their shared taste in a very particular kind of music, and seasonal friendliness filled this concert from start to finish.  

Evoking picturesque rural beauty and sincere, simple faith by turns, each pastorale shone with elegance and emotional intensity, the twin stars of this genre. Frankly exquisite instrumental playing from Spiritato!, led by the charismatic and approachable John Crockatt, lent the evening real sparkle, while promising vocal contributions from Augusta Hebbert produced two enjoyable Scarlatti pastorales. The generous acoustic of Great St Mary’s Church made a third significant contributor to our enjoyment, and if it hadn’t been for some truly circulation-defying pew cushions, which gave all the appearance of comfort but none of its solace, we might almost have had a perfect evening.

The programme began with Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto grosso, Op.1 no. 8, which grew from a beautifully, slow-breathed beginning into languorous music of great sophistication, managing to feel heartfelt without being melancholic, finally moving towards bright passages of sprightly animation despite the occasional smudge or squeak from the strings as they settled into their stride. Next came our first Cantata Pastorale from Alessandro Scarlatti, Non só qual più ingombra, whose lyrical, flowing melodies came across well in Augusta Hebbert’s soft, penetrating soprano. A touch of delicate vibrato gives Hebbert’s voice fullness, producing a clean yet generous sound, while her control and support allow enviable accuracy. However, some vague diction (and an occasionally vague Italian accent) did not leave us with much sense of the impetuous curiosity implicit in the words of the shepherd bewildered by the joy of the Nativity, and despite her seeming confidence with the score, Hebbert remained shy of any elaborate ornamentation when revisiting earlier melodies.

The fabulously strong opening of Giuseppe Torelli’s Concerto grosso, Op.8, no. 6, with its strange circular harmonies gradually revealing a dance of rising and falling chords, was testament to the faultless playing of Spiritato!, who gave us a final movement of gleaming, icy coolness. An inspired programming choice next turned to Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons, allowing us to see the dynamic originality of Vivaldi beside his contemporaries, with a visceral violin solo from John Crockatt. It’s easy to gloss over such a canonical work, and forget (through sheer familiarity) how many strong visual effects Vivaldi conjures: Spiritato!’s lucid and courageous playing ensured we did not take this exceptional piece for granted.

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Giuseppe Sammartini’s Concerto grosso Op.5, no. 6 had a characteristic balance between the tender, the sacred and the magnificent, with a twisting melody in its central movement which made for a mathematically satisfying listen, and finishing with a gorgeously lilting pastorale. Hebbert’s second attempt at Scarlatti was much more successful: Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore, O di Betlemme altera was sung with more conviction, more presence, and significantly better diction, a sharper attack on her consonants lifting the quality of her Italian, and Hebbert’s expressive power overall, in a joyful account which also allowed her to dare an occasional, successful ornament.

Arcangelo Corelli’s superb Concerto grosso, Op.6, no. 8 made for a glorious finale to our evening, an exquisitely multi-layered piece of music with a strong sense of impending threat in its opening movement. The second movement sees measured stateliness (with almost a touch of Bach) give way to trembling excitement at its centre, before an immensely satisfying return to calm. The joyous, determined and adventurous final movement above all repaid the focused passion of Spiritato!, whose scrupulous, yet playful approach made the most of every note. I was still humming all the way home, and for once, it wasn't Adeste, fideles