How to present a mostly forgotten composer to a modern audience is an interesting conundrum. Reviving a four hour opera seria about Marcus Aurelius likely isn’t the answer and just sticking a few pieces in an otherwise mainstream program is unlikely to have much impact either. Better by far, I think, is the approach Ivars Taurins has taken in Tafelmusik’s current run of concerts of music by the Venetian Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) at Trinity St.Paul’s.
The first half presents two religious works; the Beatus Vir a 8, a short work for choir, organ and strings, and the longer Stabat Mater; with multiple solo parts plus choir, organ and strings. In the latter, the featured artist of the evening; Krisztina Szabó, appeared as the alto soloist. It’s a complex work in twelve sections; in each of which different combinations of soloists are used. Szabó aside, the solo roles were effectively taken by various members of the 22 member Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. Both pieces are good examples of the church music of the era and well worth a listen.
After the break we got what a curated selection of pieces from Steffani’s many operas. There were solos for Krisztina; most appearing to have been originally written for alto castrato. There were various short orchestral pieces and a couple of choruses and there were also two mezzo duets in which Victoria Marshall joined Krisztina.
It was really quite impressive. Most of the operatic pieces augmented the strings with woodwinds adding a bit more colour and texture. The pieces were mostly short. Steffani’s arias are notable for only lasting a couple of minutes rather than than the eight minute marathons some of his contemporaries went for. They are also emotionally focussed and rather effective. Krisztina sang beautifully and Victoria pretty much matched her in the duets. The choir was crisp and the orchestra idiomatic. I really don’t think that Steffani could have hoped for a better showcase for his talents.
There are two more performances; tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 3.30pm.