BWW Reviews: I FAGIOLINI Makes Its Debut Australian Tour

Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Thursday 30 July 2015

When I saw that I Fagiolini were touring this year for Musica Viva, I went looking for my only album of theirs, Simunye, to remind myself of their particular sound. They are a well established a capella ensemble of, generally, eight voices founded in 1986 and directed by countertenor, Robert Hollingworth. The name does translate from the Italian as 'the little beans', an indicator to me that the group take their music seriously, themselves not so much.

Simunye had introduced me t their special sound in the English repertoire but also to their daring approach to music. Simunye was a record of their collaboration with the SDASA chorale in South Africa, affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventists. Traditional English anthems, such Orlando Gibbons's O clap your hands, blended with songs in various South African languages.

They sing. They also act, dance, play strange Italian board games and perform seventeenth century rituals of medical import. It certainly makes them different from other ensembles.

The first part of the concert at the Adelaide Town Hall began with short works by Tomás Luis de Victoria and Orlando Gibbons sung, shall we say, in a straightforward manner, though the soprano to my right questioned the vibrato in the upper voices. This was followed by Il Gioco dell'Occa (The Game of Goose), by Giovanni Croce, in which the singers mimed playing a sixteenth century version of snakes and ladders. I think the first soprano won, but I could have been deceived.

Then back to the serious stuff. Three Claudio Monteverdi madrigals given cool but expressive voice, and then one of those pieces that so amused the sixteenth century, La Chasse (The Hunt), by Clément Jannequin. They imitated dogs, stags, horses, hunting horns and spoke of the entire minutiae of the hunt, up to tracking the beast by its spoor, eloquently described in terms of warmth and consistency, in a performance of warmth and consistency.

The second half was full of joyful surprises. Francis Poulenc wrote Sept Chansons (Seven Songs), a set of seven songs for a capella ensemble to texts by the surrealists, Apollinaire and Eluard, and these were sung with impeccable diction and a sense of mystery that was quite engaging to the point of being hypnotic.

The work commissioned for the tour from the Australian composer Andrew Schultz, Le Molière imaginaire, carried on the French theme, being an adaptation into Latin and English of the musical farce that ends Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac or The Imaginary Invalid) by Molière. Timothy Knapman's schoolboy revision of the original text with jokes about Rupert Murdoch and Renee Zellweger, was acted out with evident joy, and the sort of language you don't often hear in a classical vocal concert. People still find enemas funny.

The final work on the program, Hymn to Awe, by contemporary composer Adrian Williams to a text by the poet Gillian Clarke, was a compelling piece of contemporary vocal writing created for the group and sung with heartfelt passion. It was composed for I Fagiolini who worked with Australian circus Circa in a show that toured British cathedrals, How Like an Angel.

So far so good. Then the encore, written by one of the South African singers they met when working on Simunye, Bheka Dlamini, a man who is now a Soweto cab driver. Warm, sensual and moving; the singers formed a line and mimed picking up bags and burdens as they left.

Let me say that, if you close your eyes, you miss the playfulness of the performances, but you can't miss the commitment and skill the group brings to everything that they present. Now, if only I can find my copy of Simunye. According to Hollingworth, it's much sought after on Ebay and will fetch a good price.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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