York Early Music Christmas Festival: Fieri Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 11
SORRY to pour cold water on your show, chaps, but this was not the oratorio it was billed to be. Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, an Italian with Austrian forebears, described his theatrical piece of 1629, The Shepherds of Bethlehem, as a “dialogo recitativo” – a dialogue in musical speech – a forerunner of oratorio certainly, but not the real McCoy. That was still to come.
Now that’s cleared up, Kapsperger certainly made a hefty stab at dramatising the Christmas story and the five singers and four players of Fieri put up a pretty good case for it. So we had the shepherds and the angels battling for the spotlight, while the librettist – a pope-in-waiting – delivered unctuous praise of the present pope, Urban VIII, via a narrator.
What the work lacked in arias was pleasingly filled in with motets and other madrigal-style commentaries, mainly from an earlier generation of composers. So Hassler hinted at the Annunciation, Michael Praetorius’s rose bloomed again, Marenzio admired the Christ-child and Victoria evoked the mystery of it all.
Fieri bring plenty of meat to the table in this repertory. These are strong, modern voices quite without the preciousness once so treasured by early-music buffs, but smooth at the edges as well, so that their blend is exceptionally polished. Shading was less prevalent here. There was even some splendid coloratura from Hannah Ely and Helen Charlston, courtesy of Carissimi, and the instruments kept up tasty chatter behind it all.
Review by Martin Dreyer