★★★★☆ Vocal splendours from England, bringing an eclectic musical “tasting menu” Down Under.

Melbourne Recital Centre
July 28, 2015

In a crowded market, the English vocal group I Fagiolini stands out for the engaging way it presents a very broad range of repertory. You have to applaud a group with projects names such as The Full Monteverdi and Tallis in Wonderland! With founding director, Robert Hollingworth as our witty yet erudite guide, audiences on this inaugural national tour are treated to a ‘tasting menu’  that runs all the way from counterreformation polyphony to recently composed commissions, from Renaissance Spain to contemporary Australia. Such a wide-ranging program sends a subtle but important reminder that music, and in particular, vocal music, has been, and can be an important part of everyday human existence.

By way of presenting their choral credentials, the group opened the program with a rapturously sonorous account of Victoria’s eight-part motet Alma redemptoris Mater followed by the exuberant O clap your hands of Orlando Gibbons. Revealing taut ensemble and a sensitivity to changes of mood, these two works whetted the musical appetite for more.

A change of mood came with Giovanni Croce’s Il gioco dell’occa (The Game of the Goose) which is a musical scena in which the singers play a board game akin to Snakes and Ladders. The performance which came complete with an idiot board for the audience, prizes and amorous intrigue.

After such frivolity it was time to return to the more sombre world of unrequited love, as expressed in three madrigals from Monteverdi’s fourth book dating from 1603. The second of these, Ohimè il bel viso was a standout for its beautifully sustained presentation and depth of feeling and was well balanced by the contrasting styles of Sfogava con le stelle and Io mi son giovinetta.

Clement Janequin’s earthy evocation of the hunt, La Chasse showed off another side of I Fagiolini’s seemingly boundless versatility. Complete with horn calls, horse and dog noises and the very serious evaluation of stag droppings (who would have thought!) this lively piece brought to life all the excitement and indeed confusion of the hunt. Brilliantly performed with lots of visual cues, here was another window into the multi-faceted world of Renaissance vocal music.

With the ‘ancient’ music concluded, the program changed gear into ‘modern’ mode, beginning with Poulenc’s first foray into choral music, the Sept chansons of 1936. Setting texts of Apollinaire and Eluard, these songs ooze elegance and sophistication; qualities that were mirrored in their delivery. Given the unforgiving clarity of the acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and the particular challenges this presents in developing vocal bloom, the singers did well to create the necessary lush sonorities for these songs.

Continuing a French connection, Andrew Schultz’s setting of the last scene from Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire, was specially commissioned by Musica Viva for I Fagioilini’s tour. Entitled Le Molière imaginaire (Or: Keep Your Enemas Closer), this work should perhaps have come with a parental advisory, or maybe an advisory for the more conservative members of the audience. The newly translated text is certainly in keeping with Molière’s original idea of delivering a coruscating attack on the quackery of the medical profession, and relies heavily on scatological references, with some passing jibes at celebrities: ‘Rupertus Murdochio in magnum merdam cascado’ being a case in point. If there was a mild possibility of offence at the lyrics, certainly none could be taken at the music, which leaned heavily towards the humorous rather than ironic. Needless to say, the singers delivered the work with great gusto, not least the final lines, ‘Infirmity’s eternal fountain, long hard bouts of burning piss!’

Well, where to from there? With great aplomb and masterly programming, the tone was raised by Hymn to Awe, a 2012 commission for I Fagiolini from English composer, Adrian Williams. As it turns out, this setting of a poem by Welsh poet, Gillian Clarke was originally used in a collaboration with Australian acrobatics team, Circa, the same group who are currently touring with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. This striking work, with its considerable vocal and musical challenges shows the ensemble off to great advantage and ends in an impressive blaze of glory.

By way of an encore, a moving Zulu piece, beautifully sung, rounded out a memorable concert that was remarkable for humour, passion and intelligence in equal measure.