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Music: Cavalli and Rossi (Musica Antiqua Rotherhithe)

03 March 2023

Fiona Hook hears Italian early music in a church in south-east London


LAUNCHED in 2016, Musica Antica Rotherhithe performs rarely heard 16th- and 17th-century music. Its latest offering was a programme consisting of a Requiem by the 17th century Italian composer, Cavalli, and a heartbreakingly mournful penitential cantata by his contemporary Luigi Rossi: two major figures in the generation of musicians who represent the stylistic transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque.

Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) sang at San Marco in Venice, and undoubtedly studied under Monteverdi. He was best known in his lifetime for his 41 operas, the acquisition of a wealthy wife enabling him to spend time on a form that then, as now, was costly and risky to stage. The eight-part Requiem was written for his own funeral, with instructions to perform it twice a year in his memory, as long as funds permitted.

Rossi (1597-1653) studied in Naples, and spent most of his career in Rome, writing sacred cantatas for wealthy patrons. His Disperar Di Se Stesso (Despair of oneself) was intended for private devotion at home rather than church use. The solo verses, replete with private pain, alternate repentance with a confidence in God’s mercy,

An intimate evening atmospherically illuminated by candles began with Cavalli, Rossi’s cantata sandwiched between the Kyrie and the Dies Irae. The eight singers formed two different four-part choirs, singing to each other as they might have done in church. In the Cavalli, nicely projected solo passages alternated with skilful blending as they explored the multifarious textures of a work that had hints of opera in its strange chromatics and moments of declamation. They finished with Ghequetst Ben Ic Van Binnen, a 16th-century setting by Ludovicus Episcopus of a 13th-century Dutch devotional poem, probably the first time it’s been sung in four centuries.

It is worth listing all the singers: the unrelated, but beautifully homogeneous sopranos Emily and Milly Atkinson; the countertenors Tristam Cooke and Mark Williams; the tenors Maxim Meshkvichev and Oliver Doyle, who directed with discreet hand signals while singing; and the basses Joachim Sabbat and Alex Fratley, who at times went down to an astonishing low E. Everything was underpinned by a continuo team whose lack of keyboard added a delicacy to the line: Jonatan Bougt’s theorbo and Harry Buckoke’s viola da gamba.

Holy Trinity, Rotherhithe, was an excellent choice. Designed by Thomas Ford, it is a small 1950s church, as attractive outside as in. The interior is light, with a distinctive curved ceiling, and acoustically perfect. A mural of Christ leaving the cross in triumph, painted by Hans Feibusch in soft shades of terracotta and sea green, covers the wall behind the altar. It is to be hoped that other musicians will soon realise what a perfect venue this is.

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