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Handel Alexander’s Feast Emma Bell (soprano); Paul Agnew (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); The Choir of the English Concert; The English Concert/Andrew Manze, QEH, Tuesday, November 11th, 2003 (CC)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart prepared new performing versions of four major Handel vocal works: Messiah, Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, Acis and Galatea and Alexander’s Feast. Andrew Manze, the English Concert’s new Artistic Director (he took up the post in July this year), began the concert with a spoken introduction, posing questions such as, ‘Has Mozart improved on or damaged the Handelian original?’ or, ‘would Handel be jealous of Mozart’s extra instruments?’ This impromptu lecture came as a surprise (or was it to make up for the brief programme notes, also by Manze); but perhaps it set up the ‘right’ questioning frame of mind in at least some of the audience.

This was to be a lively, committed performance. The English Concert makes a rich and deep sound and its sense of style is impeccable. There was much orchestral colour here (the English Concert is no stranger to Handel: try the recording of Tamerlano on Avie AV0001, directed by Trevor Pinnock, for instance:). The only questionable element was Manze’s own beat – just where is the downbeat, exactly? Not that that seemed to disturb the players, who played crisply and with superb ensemble.

The actual story of Alexander’s Feast concerns the celebrations of the conqueror of the Persian Empire. Originally a setting of poetry by John Dryden (1631-1700), Mozart used the translation by Karl Heinrich Ramler (1725-98). Musically, Mozart revised the wind parts, making them up to a full Classical band (this arrangement is K591 in Köchel’s catalogue). Vocal parts change very little, except for the shift to German.

Despite the excellence of the English Concert, the performance’s crowning glory was the soloists. Tenor Paul Agnew set things in motion, and right from the start his powerful, full tone was allied to exemplary diction. He shaded his lines affectingly; his melismas were smooth, yet every note made its point, shorn of aspirates. The slight baritonal edge to the lower register of his range lent him an undercurrent of authority. Recitatives were consistently interesting.

Emma Bell, who triumphed in the title role in Handel’s Rodelinda for Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1999 and who is now with the Komische Oper, Berlin, is possessed of a clear-toned voice that clearly is every inch up to Handel’s demands. Her pitching in the upper register was delightful (as in her aria, ‘Der König horcht/mit stolzem Ohr; With ravished ears/the Monarch hears’) and she could be charming and delicate as required. Bell’s ease with Handelian vocal lines was a joy to hear, her timing spot on. A pity she is given so much less to do in Part II (just one aria), but even there her gentle delicacy was immensely treasurable.

The bass Roderick Williams made up the trio of soloists. He appears to have a huge repertoire (from Handel through to Wagner and Birtwistle) and certainly his flair for the dramatic showed. He was the only soloist who actually ‘acted’ his arias – the song to Bacchus (‘Bacchus, ewig jung und schön; Bacchus, ever fair and young’) showed this aspect of his art perfectly. He is given two arias in a row in Part II – a determined revenge aria and a slower ‘ghost’ aria, (then a reprise of the first: a da capo, in effect). Williams’ stage presence was never in doubt (he seemed entirely at home), his musicality easily the equal of his peers.

The orchestra played superbly. How wonderful to hear the horn combination of Anthony Halstead and Christian Rutherford (the ECO combo of my musically formative years), simply superb in the aforementioned Song to Bacchus.

Manze was always incredibly sensitive to textural matters. He brought out the striking effectiveness of the scoring in the final tenor recitative (a picture of desolation for flutes and vibrato-free violins). The Choir of the English Concert was supremely disciplined, rounding off Part I in infectiously jubilant manner, perfectly balanced and perfectly in tune.

A memorable evening all round.

Colin Clarke

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