Anna Caterina Antonacci at the Wigmore

Having just completed the incredibly frustrating process of attempting to book this year’s Proms, I needed to calm myself with recollections of an excellent concert at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday, when Anna Caterina Antonacci was joined by pianist Donald Sulzen and the Heath Quartet for an interestingly varied concert.

Accompanied by piano, Antanacci applied her vibrant, juicy tone to Debussy and Wagner.  For the former, Chanson de Bilitis, Mandoline, three songs from Ariettes oubliées, and Le premonoir des deux amants. For the latter, the Wesendonck Lieder. I am usually rather stone-hearted when it comes to Debussy, and was not overly enamoured of the prospect of so much of it, but Antonacci managed to draw me into it much more than almost any other singer, the very direct expressive approach (and lovely, caressed, French language sounds) making it more engaging. When she ended Le chevelure with the phrase ‘que je baissai les yeux avec un frisson’, that final word was rolled forth like Nigella Lawson licking the spoon… Lovely.

The main draw had been the Wesendonck Lieder, which kind of didn’t work, rather curiously. Antonacci’s voice is a big, dramatic, expressive instrument – who can forget her Cassandre at Covent Garden? – and, glued to the score, she didn’t achieve that still, ‘inner’ quality that makes these songs such ethereal beauties. She seemed less certain of the German as well. Sulzen’s accompaniment was similarly forceful, and the whole thing came across rather bold and choppy, where it should be lustrous and flowing. Interesting, though, as ever with Antonacci.

The Quartet performed two instrumental pieces and one accompaniment to the singer. Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade was enjoyable, but I’m afraid won’t live in the memory, however crisply articulated and however spirited the performance. Puccini’s Crisantemi, on the other hand, was a small piece of suitably operatic dimensions (it apparently supplied a theme for Manon Lescaut), with some lovely harmonies, expressively exploited, and Puccini’s trademark ability to wrap up themes into a steadily building emotional rush.

The best certainly came at the end, though, when Antonacci joined the Quartet for Respighi’s Il tramonto, an Italian language setting of Shelley’s The Sunset. An eventful, but poised, piece, it brought out some gripping singing, with Antonacci responding to the text with dramatic, but never melodramatic, urgency, appropriate to a poem of rather bleak tragedy. The description of Isabel’s tragedy in finding her lover dead in the morning, and especially its aftermath, is moving indeed, having “died not, nor grew wild”, but living “to tend her agèd father” as a “kind of madness, if madness ’tis to be unlike the world.” Antonacci brought it beautifully to life, on a bed of responsive sound conjured up by the quartet. Fantastic.

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