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S & H Concert Review

Handel, ‘Oratorio per la Resurrezione di Nostre Signor Gesù’ The English Concert, dir. Trevor Pinnock, St. John’s Smith Square, Saturday 7th June 2003 (ME)

This concert marked the opening of the 19th Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, this year’s theme being ‘Between Intimacy and Splendour,’ and you could hardly hope for an evening which might better exemplify both qualities: St. John’s is the epitome of baroque splendour in terms of surroundings yet its atmosphere and acoustic are famously intimate, the ‘English Concert’ has always made it a priority to foster familiarity with its audiences in terms of performance practice and attitude, and finally Handel’s work, written when he was just 23, is the perfect blend of dramatic splendour and showiness with tender intimacy. No one could advocate the status of a ‘Messiah’ for ‘Resurrezione,’ but given the commitment of a musical director who clearly adores it, and a team of soloists who sang it as though there could be no argument about its greatness, it was hard not to wonder why one so rarely hears it.

Opera having been banned from Rome by papal edict some 30 years before Handel came to the city, a tradition of lavish presentations of oratorio had unsurprisingly grown up, and when Handel was commissioned to compose an Easter Sunday Oratorio for 1708, he was given positively luxurious conditions to facilitate the work, including the then rarity of three whole rehearsals as well as a vastly complex setting with a sumptuous, candelabra-and-cherub theme and a huge painted backdrop. The narrative to be presented in these surroundings was of course of the highest spiritual import, but in keeping with the operatic nature of oratorio at the time, the characters are not so much vocal soloists as protagonists in a drama, enacting rather than reporting on the events of Easter Sunday.

The first part depicts the argument between Heaven and Hell, or Good and Evil, in the forms of an Angel and Lucifer, with the serene confidence of the Angel being contrasted with the almost comical blustering of the Fiend. As Blake said, referring to ‘Paradise Lost,’ ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ Rebellion and passion are of course more likely to engage than mere confidence, and Handel’s music for Lucifer does everything to promote those qualities, especially in the dramatic sweep of the range required, and Alan Ewing did his best to present a swaggering, self-absorbed character: he was dramatically successful but his voice, though intrinsically a fine Handelian basso, is somewhat muffled in character and lacking in bite at crucial moments.

Carolyn Sampson was ideally cast as the Angel, her tone inherently pure and her technique immaculate despite a rather muted beginning when she did not quite make all her words tell. She sang the lovely air ‘D’amor fù consiglio’ with elegant phrasing and sense of line, and her triumphant scene at the close of the first part, ‘Uscite pur, uscite’ was done with great commitment, the pure Angel now becoming a genuinely fiery presence. I was less impressed with the other soprano, Veronica Cangemi, who sang the part of Mary Magdalene. As with Alan Ewing, there was no doubt as to her dramatic flair and assurance – she threw herself into the part, at times almost too much so, and made every conflict extremely colourful, but her voice is not quite as vibrant as her personality. Her finest moment was the lovely lament ‘Notte, notte funesta’ which was sung with great fervour as well as delicacy, and she was exceptionally vivid in recitative.

Recitative was also the strong point of the mezzo-soprano Emma Curtis, whose Mary Cleophas was distinguished by her lovely, burnished tone and serene manner: she avowed her readiness to follow Mary Magdalene at ‘Pronta a seguirti’ with such passion that I was a little disappointed by the following aria, but she was still a discovery for me, genuine mezzos with a truly balanced middle register and a secure low range being far thinner on the ground than one might imagine, and she was a treasure in the ensembles.

Handel wrote some of his most beautiful but also most exposed music for the tenor part of St. John, superbly taken here by John Mark Ainsley who has few, if any equals in this repertoire. In the Evangelist’s two arias in Part One, the first as Felix Warnock says ‘thrillingly virtuoso’ and the second full of sweetness, Ainsley achieved that rare feat of combining perfect control in very ornate passages with beauty of tone and tenderness of expression, and as for his diction, anyone hearing him for the first time would surely find it hard to believe that his first language is English and not Italian. In Part Two, ‘Ecco il sol’ was sung with great attention to detail – ‘Smalta i prati, i colli indora’ actually suggesting the movement of the sun across the landscape, and ‘Caro Figlio’ not only confidently articulated but beautifully tender without recourse to sentimentality, and when sung like this bringing to mind the much later but emotionally similar ‘Waft Her, Angels’ from ‘Jephtha.’

Confident articulation and tenderness were also very much in evidence in the orchestra, despite a rocky beginning occasioned by some intrusive noise (an aside, but St. John’s is one of the worst London venues for this, with much rattling, rustling and St. Vitus dance-like behaviour from the audience – frustrated, perhaps, by their inability to get any coffee after dinner, the requirement being that one queues up once for one’s meal, then queues again for interval drinks, then again for coffee) which left a couple of instruments slightly shaky for a while. Pinnock and the English Concert present the music with real spirit, whether in tutti or in the many passages where individuals echo or support the voices, the lovely solo flute in ‘Così la tortorella’ being a prime example, and the trumpets (Mark Bennett and Michael Harrison) giving their all at those characteristically Handelian blazes of sound.

This auspicious beginning to the Lufthansa Festival was rapturously received by a near-capacity audience, and one can only delight in programming like this, which introduces so many people to great works which have yet to be a part of everyone’s musical life: particularly enticing future concerts in the Festival include a performance of ‘L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato’ by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Ivor Bolton on June 19th, and an evening of Purcell and Bach in Westminster Abbey with Emma Kirkby among the soloists – warmly recommended.


Melanie Eskenazi



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