Breathtaking: Soprano and cornetto mingle in this rarely glimpsed musical world.

St James, King St, Sydney
Limelight Magazine reviewed by Angus McPherson on March 19, 2019

The cornetto – an early trumpet-like instrument that resembles a stretched out, wooden replica of the ice cream that now bears its name – fell out of favour towards the end of the 17th century, but underwent a revival in the hands of early music specialists in the 20th-century. The revival was driven by musicians like American cornetto virtuoso Bruce Dickey, who along with Czech soprano Hana Blažíková, is touring the pair’s Breathtaking program with Tasmanian HIP ensemble Van Diemen’s Band.

Van Diemen’s Band burst onto the scene in 2017 and has since released a highly regarded album on ABC Classic. The ensemble, along with Blažíková and Dickey, is on its first national tour, presenting Dickey and Blažíková’s program of music from the cornetto’s heyday, in which the colours of their two instruments intertwine.

And the two sounds were luminous – soprano clear and bell-like, cornetto mellow and nutty – in Sydney’s St James, King St, the program opening with Maurizio Cazzati’s setting of the ancient Marian hymn Regina coeli. Both Blažíková and Dickey charted exquisitely shaped phrases over Donald Nicolson’s crisp harpsichord, the performance hampered only by St James’ cavernous acoustic, which muddied the thicker textures somewhat and robbed the text of its clarity.

The program that unfolded was a thoughtfully chosen, beautifully performed exploration of works featuring cornetto and soprano, by composers such as Sigismondo D’India, Tarquinio Merula, Giacomo Carissimi, Giovanni Battista Bassani and Alessandro Scarlatti – whose 1697 opera Emireno unusually (and rather mysteriously) contains a particularly virtuosic cornetto part, showcased here in a trio of arias that served as the evening’s finale.

The acoustic challenges were a near-constant presence in what was otherwise a refined, elegant recital, but they dropped away when the texture thinned. The agile beauty of Blažíková’s soprano, adorned with only sparing vibrato, came across clearly when accompanied only by Nick Pollock’s theorbo in Nicolò Corradini’s Spargite flores. Just as compelling was Dickey’s florid, yet gently understated, cornetto ornaments on Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s setting of Nigra sum (one of three works on the program based on the text from Solomon’s Song of Songs), accompanied by organ, the cornetto’s sound ringing in the high corners of the cavernous church.

The sole 21st-century work on the program – Calliope Tsoupaki’s 2015 Mélana Imí (a setting in Byzantine Greek of the Nigra sum) for soprano, cornetto and viola da gamba – also thrived in this acoustic. Laura Vaughan’s keen-edged gamba sound carved the air in the low register, Blažíková entry emerging as a shimmering halo from the sound of the cornetto. There was nothing jarring about the 300 or so year gap between the composition dates, Tsoupaki’s dark, modal piece perfectly matching the atmosphere created by the 17th-century works on the program.

While the interplay between soprano and cornetto was spot-lit in this concert, the quintet of Van Diemen’s Band musicians had plenty of opportunities to shine. Julia Fredersdorff and Lucinda Moon, for instance, traced stirring contours of tension and release in Biagio Marini’s Sonata seconda a doi voilini with darkly gleaming violin lines.

Breathtaking was a fascinating sonic experience and a window into a musical world we glimpse but rarely. This might be Van Diemen’s Band’s first national tour, but with playing – and international guest artists – like this, it shouldn’t be their last. Breathtaking, indeed.