The first of this summer's Proms Saturday Matinees showed even the Cadogan Hall series embracing the season's wider celebration of global music: it featured a visit by Armonia Atenea, the first Greek orchestra ever to play at the Proms.
Appropriately enough, the programme was devoted to the influence of Greek myth on Baroque and Classical opera, a genre which, after all, came into being through the Renaissance's fascination with ancient Greek theatre. A thorough exploration could have kept us busy until the start of the 2015 Proms, yet this 90-minute concert was cleverly designed to include a few key composers.
Formerly known as the Athens Camerata, the versatile Armonia Atenea is as much at home playing period instruments as in contemporary music, and it owes much of its prowess in the former department to its artistic director, George Petrou, a pioneer of period performance in Greece. Petrou's stylish, unmannered conducting was equally effective in repertoire drawn from across a century in a programme encompassing Lully's Phaëton of 1683 and Paisiello's L'Olimpiade of 1786.
Yet if anything lacked ideal stylistic finesse, it was the Lully; perhaps these players are less deeply immersed in French Baroque music than the other repertoire. Any heaviness here was more than compensated for by the superbly lithe playing – seemingly flecked with Aegean light – they brought to the concert's opening item, the Sinfonia from Hasse's Artemisia. The overture to Handel's Alessandro had bustling, martial brilliance, and two of Gluck's greatest hits (drawn from Orphée et Eurydice) could hardly have sounded better: these musicians slowly caressed the Dance of the Blessed Spirits and were bracing in the Dance of the Furies.
In Gluck's first French opera, Iphigénie en Aulide, the mezzo-soprano Irini Karaianni caught all the vengefulness of Clytemnestra's "Ma fille! … Jupiter, lance la foudre". Inspired not only by the obvious dramatic possibilities, Gluck also sought to convey the moral weight of Greek myth, and that shone though in "Non so frenare il pianto" from his early Antigono, where Karaianni's warm, dusky tone suggested introverted pain. Her outburst at "Son mille affetti insieme" ("a thousand emotions mingled") showed Gluck's genius for illuminating Metastasio's words.