Giacomo Carissimi may have written Jephte some 360 years ago, but at Trinity College chapel on Friday night, La Nuova Musica brought it to life.
This concert was an exploration of works from the mid and late 17th century culminating in Carissimi's Jephte, an early oratorio of modest proportions that is nonetheless an inventive and moving work. Jephte was realised excellently by the whole ensemble, particularly the soprano Zoe Brown who sang the role of the daughter with a sensitivity for the unbearable sorrow of the final lament and with joyous vocal antics in the more animated parts of the work. Jephte was preceded by Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa, during which, as director David Bates informed the audience, the soloist is instructed to sing with the "feeling of her heart"; purposefully grating against the ensemble's own rhythm and harmony. It took the mezzo soloist Esther Brazil a few lines to warm into this piece, but when she did the dolorous power of the music kept the audience in raptures and provided a fitting pair to Jephte.
The first half of the concert was mainly concerned with Purcell songs. Any reservations I had about the potentially monotonous set of six consecutive ground-bass pieces were wiped away by the vitality which the ensemble brought to the pieces and by the excellent quality of the vocalists, particularly Christopher Field's smooth alto. It was in the only work in the programme by John Blow from his lament Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell, where the greatest display of vocal embellishment could be heard as Nicholas Scott, in combination with David Bates' artful harpsichord playing, produced a true spectacle to behold.
In fact, Bates is clearly the centre of the energy in this ensemble. I was blown away with the way he used the harpsichord; here as a percussive punctuation, there as a soaring arpeggiaic underlay to the singers' lines. The ability of the ensemble to extemporise on the written notes is essential to the character of this music, particularly in the Carissimi which only exists as a vocal/continuo score, and La Nuova Musica captured this vital element of 17th-century music. Ornaments and improvisations leapt forth with artistry and energy, imbuing the music with spirit but at no cost to the quality of the playing. Indeed, the tuning was almost always spot-on and the players communicated as a polished whole.
This concert served as a poignant reminder that music does not exist in a fixed, timeless state, but rather as single a moment in time. The immediacy, improvisational skill and physical energy of La Nouva Musica meant that the music was as much theirs as Purcell's or Carissimi's. Furthermore, the colouristic relief of earthy theorbo and sinewy, vibrato-less high strings is, to my ears at least, a sound-world full of colour and vitality that can only be fully experienced in a live setting. It would be nigh impossible to appreciate the colour, character and exhilaration that this music can produce by merely listening to a recording. Hopefully, the Cambridge Early Music series will offer up many more similar experiences, although I doubt that many groups will be able to rival La Nuova Musica's energy and communication.