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Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music: Handel, ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’, The English Concert, dir. Andrew Manze; Carolyn Sampson, Hilary Summers, Charbel Mattar, St. John’s, Smith Square, 7 May, 2005 (ME)

This year’s Lufthansa Festival celebrates the 21st anniversary of the showcase for Baroque music which always manages to surprise with its innovative programming and judicious choice of artists. The theme for this year is ‘The Grand Tour,’ exploring the music which would have been known by those cultured few who were fortunate enough to be able to undertake the 18th century version of the ‘gap year,’ and this opening concert provided a rare chance to hear Handel’s ‘first version’ of the story of Galatea, the nymph whose love for the shepherd Acis and whose rejection of the monster Polyphemus eventually leads her to return to the sea. Handel was only 23 when he wrote the piece for a royal wedding in Naples, and this occasion inspired its triumphal, optimistic character.

The work differs from the much better-known ‘Acis and Galatea’ in several respects: the music is not quite so remarkable in character, the tessitura of the chosen singers here a soprano hero and contralto heroine as opposed to a tenor hero and soprano heroine, with only the bass part common to both, and that bass role is here rather more sympathetic than in the later work, where such music as ‘O ruddier than the cherry,’ wonderful though it is, tends to render the character absurd as much as loathsome. ‘Aci’ begins with a positively charming duet in which the lovers’ voices blend intricately, and it ends with a rousing trio in which the characters emerge from their roles to laud ‘fido amor, pura costanza’ rather in the manner of the final tutti in ‘Figaro’ - the music here reminds one of ‘The Trumpet’s Loud Clangour excites us to Arms’ in its exultant quality and its confident use of brass. Between these two there unfolds a gentle drama of love and obsession, in music that is always appealing and occasionally remarkable.

It certainly demands a great deal from the singers, testing them to their absolute limits at times, and here the English Concert did the work proud with casting which I can’t imagine being bettered. Hilary Summers has one of those voices which some tend to hear as ‘plummy’ at times, yet it is wonderfully well suited to this kind of role: the lovely aria ‘Sforzando a piangere’ with its delicate oboe accompaniment, lies low even for her – it has a strong likeness to ‘Scherza Infida’ (from ‘Ariodante’) and is equally demanding, but she was able to shape the lines as though the very taxing notes held no terrors for her. She was also unfazed by the rapid trills in ‘Benchè tuoni e l’etra avvampi’ and managed her highly dramatic recitative with great skill. Carolyn Sampson is everywhere these days, and she provided a sweet-toned, vibrant Aci, the high point of her performance being the ‘bird song’ aria ‘Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta,’ her voice weaving in and out of the violin line with supple, flowing grace.

The bass Charbel Mattar was a new name to me, and I predict a great career for this young singer, a Solti Foundation award holder who has already sung at Glyndebourne and at various recital venues. It’s true that very good baritones and basses are not exactly thin on the ground, but this one is something special: his very beautiful, fine- grained bass has an exceptional range, the like of which one hears perhaps once or twice on a regular basis in ‘live’ performance - one does hear singers who are comfortable within two and a half octaves – Matthias Goerne springs to mind – but Mr. Mattar easily manages the two and two thirds required by ‘Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori’ whilst giving point to the words and elegance to the phrasing. The way in which he contrasted the tremulousness of ‘farfalla confusa’ ( bewildered moth) with the lugubriousness of ‘ne spera piacer’ was quite something to hear. Of course, there were one or two rough – ish patches, but for so young a singer to manage bottom C sharp to top A with such confidence, is remarkable. He was quite rightly given a rare mid-performance ovation. Handel, as was his frequent practice, re-used this wonderful aria many years later in ‘Sosarme,’ radically transposed even though it was to be sung by Montagnana, so it’s good to know that present day singers can sometimes surpass the great legends.

Under Andrew Manze’s direction, the English Concert provided playing that was spirited, sympathetic to the singers and appropriately virtuosic when required. The trumpets (Mark Bennett and Michael Harrison) covered themselves in glory, especially in the bass aria ‘Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto’ which recalls the tenor’s ‘Love Sounds Th’Alarm’ in ‘Acis and Galatea,’ and David Gordon’s harpsichord accompanied arias such as the soprano’s ‘Dell’ aquila l’artigli’ most beautifully as well as giving crisp, pointed underlining to the recitatives. This work may not contain quite so much great music as its later version, but it deserves hearing when played and sung with such skill and commitment as this.

The Festival continues until May 28th, with forthcoming highlights being Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem,’ Salve regina’ and Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ mass performed in Westminster Abbey on the 17th with a cast including Carolyn Sampson and Ann Murray, and an evening of Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi with the superb Concerto Köln and the amazing alto Sonia Prina, in my view one of the very greatest of all baroque singers, at St. John’s Smith Square on the 24th.

Melanie Eskenazi


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