Tara Erraught and Irish Baroque Orchestra, at the Shaw Room, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, on 7 February 2020

Peter Whelan is a man with a mission: to bring the forgotten music of 18th-century Dublin back to life. In previous concerts he has directed music associated with the ceremonial life of Dublin Castle, as well as the musical adventures and connections of violinist Matthew Dubourg. Today’s concert, with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, shifts attention to the theatre, focusing on the life and career of the celebrated (and scandalous) castrato opera star Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci. And who better to play this larger-than-life figure than an emerging star of our own time, mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, who today makes her debut with the ensemble.

Setting the scene, the orchestra opens with the Sinfonia in C by Flemish composer Pierre van Maldere, possibly one of the first symphonies composed in Dublin, when van Maldere was leading the band at the Philharmonic Room on Fishamble Street. The bright energy and warm colours of this piece, set off with dramatic crescendos in the then new style coming out of Mannheim, gives a hint of the operatic grandeur to come. Tara Erraught introduces the musical portrait of Tenducci with two arias from his breakthrough role of Arbace from Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes: the dramatic ‘Amid a thousand wracking woes’ followed by the calm lament of ‘Water parted from the sea’. The fine sound of the ensemble, led by Whelan at the fortepiano, proves an excellent foil for the bloom and even coloratura of Erraught’s voice.

Tara Erraught’s singing projects the character and clarity that this music needs, and she proves a persuasive advocate for it. Singing of Tommaso Giordani’s Queen Mary’s Lamentation, and the ever-popular Caro mio ben, her rich tone adds warm colour and sentiment, emerging from and blending with the ensemble to telling effect. These elements are heard to an even greater degree in the pair of pieces arranged specially for Tenducci by his friend Johann Christian Bach (London-based son of the great Johann Sebastian), with the showpiece operatic scene ‘Ebben si vada’ matched with Bach’s elegant arrangement of the Scots folksong ‘The Braes of Ballenden’.

Arrangements of folk music also feature in Giordani’s overture to Island of Saints, with its curious medley of traditional Irish tunes (rounded off with a rousing rendition of ‘The Rakes of Mallow’), and Johann Christian Fischer’s Variations on ‘Gramachree Molly’ for oboe and orchestra. This mix of cosmopolitan instrumental techniques and popular local tunes adds an extra element of political theatre to the programme, the charm of these pieces (especially as heard today, with some excellent playing) perhaps sidestepping the unconscious sting with which they might originally have been heard. Tenducci’s connections with Mozart allow for a familiar flourish at the end, as ‘Exultate Jubilate’ is substituted for the now-lost work that Mozart composed specially for the singer. Eclectic, surprising, and engaging, this lengthy programme is met with warm applause at the end, and the promise of a recording to follow.

Pierre van Maldere: ‘Dublin’ Sinfonia in G, VR28
Thomas Arne: ‘Amid a thousand racking woes’ and ‘Water parted from the sea’, from Artaxerxes
Tommaso Giordani: Overture, Island of Saints; ‘Queen Mary’s Lamentation’; ‘Caro mio ben’
Johann Christian Fischer: Variations on ‘Gramachree Molly’
Johann Christian Bach: ‘The Braes of Ballanden’; ‘Ebben si vada’
Pierre van Maldere: ‘Dublin’ Sinfonia in C, VR31
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: ‘Exultate Jubilate’, K.165
Tara Erraught, with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, director Peter Whelan