Rossi – The Songs of Solomon

Reviewer's rating

This extraordinary concert at St John’s Smith Square was part of the Rossi400 project organised by Vache Baroque, a group of young singers dedicated to performing baroque vocal music. They have currently chosen to focus on the works of Salomone Rossi, a Jewish Italian composer who lived from 1570 to 1630, and whose collection of vocal works The Songs of Solomon was published in Venice in 1623…. hence the Rossi400 title. It was ground-breaking because Rossi chose to use the polyphonic style of Catholic church music – he was a composer and violinist at the court of the Dukes of Mantua – to set sacred Hebrew texts, a number from the Book of Psalms.

For the concert, Vache Baroque’s Music Director, Jonathan Darbourne, has selected a number of Rossi’s songs and paired them with pieces written elsewhere in Europe at around the same period by celebrated composers like Henry Purcell and Heinrich Schutz. For example, two settings of Psalm 100 “Make a Joyful Noise”, one by Rossi and one by Schutz, were performed in sequence. The impact of the beautiful music is enhanced by these thoughtful matches.

The singers of Vache Baroque were supported at this concert by the early music specialists of La Vaghezza, whose members are from Italy and Spain and Brazil and perform all over Europe, and by other musicians, so that we had the authentic sounds of  the theorbo, the viola da gamba, and the harpsichord to accompany the singers. In the splendid space of St John’s, the sound was both crystal clear and richly textured with the singers  – in varying combinations – producing a stunning succession of performances that re-created the music that one imagines would have inspired audiences in courts, in churches and in synagogues all over seventeenth century Europe.

It would be quite wrong to single out particular performers, given that the whole point of this music is the extraordinary ensemble work that is demanded of the singers – the interweaving of the melodic themes and the fugue-like structures of some of the works were of the highest standard. I particularly liked the version of Psalm 112 by Cavalli which began with a trio of male singers accompanied by theorbo, then moved to a single soprano at the back of the church, then returned to the trio accompanied for the final section by all the instruments of the Vaghezza ensemble. And my other favourite moment came with Rossi’s setting of Psalm 80 – a beautifully simple unaccompanied four-voice setting “O Lord God of Hosts, how long will thou be angry”. This was followed by a much more complex setting of this psalm by Purcell and the contrast somehow heightened the beauty of Rossi’s version.

The fact that the concert took place during Hanukkah – and that the peoples of the Middle East are currently once again tormented by conflict – magnified for all of us at St John’s, I hope, the sense of joy and community that beautiful music and fine music-making can bring in troubled times. Vache Baroque is a very special group of singers and their partnership with La Vaghezza brought a concert of the highest quality.