Of all the benefits brought to us by the early music movement, the least trumpeted is the rehabilitation of long-buried 17th-century composers and the instruments they wrote for, some of which did not survive the musical developments of later periods. Posterity is ruthless in winnowing out the also-rans of history, and obsolete instruments need as much academic research as they do practical musicianship if they are to be brought back to life. But we have reached the stage where enough capable performers exist to make even the most arcane programme marketable, as the Wigmore’s start-of-year programme demonstrated.
It brought together the soprano Carolyn Sampson and theorbist Matthew Wadsworth in music by contemporaries of Monteverdi, whose contribution was confined to a single song, “Sì dolce e’l tormento”. But this opening number, giving the singer the simplest melody while granting the theorbo a two-and-a-half octave range, underlined this lute-like instrument’s peculiar qualities: its extended neck accommodates a whole scale of low notes with no fingerboard to impede their twang.
The rest of the evening failed to build on this promising start, and you could hardly blame the composers – not all of them Venetian, though Echoes of Venice does have a conveniently attractive ring when selling an obscure programme to winter-weathered Londoners. Pride of place was given to Barbara Strozzi, whose songs, resplendent in amorous themes and gentle vocalise, have plenty of potential.
Sampson, far from her usual sparky self, barely scratched the surface. Most of the songs were sung from the music stand. She made little of the Italian consonants and even less of the vowels – a peculiarly Anglophone disease. It was all legato and purity of vocalisation, leaving no room for variation of tone or dynamic between the many repeated phrases and contrasting emphases that composers such as Strozzi and Benedetto Ferrari serve up on a plate to interpreters. Even Francesca Caccini’s “Lasciatemi qui solo”, a monodrama in all but name, passed for nothing.
Wadsworth’s handling of the purely instrumental numbers – notably Alessandro Piccinini’s Toccatas – was equally bloodless, and it was only in the Strozzi finale, “L’Eraclito amoroso”, that soprano and theorbist found an inner expressiveness appropriate to the medium.