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Handel, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Geminiani:  The English Concert, Andrew Manze (Director/Violin), Mark Padmore (Tenor), Alison McGillivray (Cello). Wigmore Hall, London, 30. 09.20 06 (GD)



This concert was the second of two focusing mainly on Handel but emphasizing the influence of his mostly Italian contemporaries. The concerts gave us a rare chance to sample a well chosen range of splendid tenor arias from Handel’s theatrical works, all sung most idiomatically by Mark Padmore. Handel, throughout his life was a frequent visitor to Italy (particularly Rome, Naples and Venice) and there are many cross-references to the ‘Italian’ style in his works. Handel greatly admired and was deeply indebted to Corelli and Domenico Scarlatti. We are not absolutely sure whether or not Handel actually met Vivaldi, who was certainly working in Venice when Handel produced ‘Agrippina’ there in 1709. It is virtually inconceivable that they never met. Opinions vary on how much Vivaldi influenced Handel, and vice-versa. I tend to think that there is considerable indebtedness/influence between both composers. One only has to listen to Handel’s Latin Motet ‘Silente venti’, or the Concerto Grosso opus 6, no 10, or certain arias from Vivaldi’s magnificent opera ‘Orlando furioso’, to hear the influence of one composer on the other.

Andrew Manze and his superb ‘English Concert’ offered a fascinating range of different styles, convergences, and contrasts in the works he chose tonight. The concert opened with Domenico Scarlatti’s Concerto Grosso no. 1 (arranged by the English organist and musical theorist Charles Avison (1709-1770). Some of these arrangements Avison transcribed from Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, as in this case. Scarlatti is known to have transcribed from his own and other composers' scores, as was general practice in the 18th Century. Avison, who made a study of Scarlatti’s output, arranged with consummate skill, especially in the two-part violin writing. Here and throughout the concert Andrew Manze played the concertante violin parts with incredible alacrity and musical virtuosity, while never becoming a soloist, never upstaging the orchestra, remaining very much part of the ensemble, as would undoubtedly have been the case in Scarlatti’s day.

Handel produced ‘Semele’ (not really an oratorio or an opera, more a rapprochement between the two) at Covent Garden in 1707 and cast the great English tenor John Beard in the role of the amorous Jupiter, who is alarmed that his latest trophy girlfriend (the mortal Semele) is pursuing the dangerous ambition to become immortal. Jupiter transports Semele to an Arcadian paradise, where he seductively soothes her with ‘Where’er you walk’ which became a Handel ‘favourite’ soon after its first performance. Although mythology makes us suspicious of Gods taking mortal mistresses, Jupiter’s ‘Come to my arms’ is beautifully serene and graceful music denoting an uncharacteristic sincerity. Mark Padmore and the orchestra played in perfect accord and were able to change style to the more Italianate baroque flourishes of  ‘Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove’ from ‘Alceste’ (written in 1750 but never performed as ‘Alceste’ in Handel’s lifetime) The first half of the concert concluded with Vivaldi’s relatively early violin concerto in A minor, op 4 no 4. It is quite amazing that both Handel and Vivaldi could produce such superb music at a very young age. This quasi (concertante) violin concerto counterpoises baroque solo violin swift arpeggios with superbly composed four-part answering sections in the strings, all delivered with consummate artistry and conviction by Manze and the orchestra.

Handel produced ‘Samson’ (again an oratorio with a distinct operatic feel) in 1743 for Covent Garden. The libretto is loosely based on Milton’s ‘Samson Agonistes’, which Handel admired. The three superbly linked arias offered deal with the quasi-philosophical themes of light, desire, vision and blindness. ‘Total eclipse’ almost pre-figures Florestan’s ‘Dungeon scene’ from ‘Fidelio’ in its allegory of blindness and despair. Then we heard the poignant ‘Your charms to ruin led the way’, a warning to the deceptions of immediate, sexual desire…Dalila’s sexual allure is made both culpable, dangerous, but also fondly remembered (envisioned) by Samson. The arias from ‘Samson’ concluded with ‘Let but that spirit… Thus when the sun’ where Samson, reconciled with Jehovah, sees again after destroying the Temple of Dagon. Again Padmore adjusted his wide ranging voice to suit the subtle musical differences of each aria.

Alison McGillivray gave us a beautifully contoured reading of Geminiani’s improvisatory Sonata for cello. op. 5 no. 1 as a more meditative interlude. Handel knew Geminiani (who also lived in London from 1714) quite well and in all likelihood heard and new this piece.

The concert officially ended with the bravura aria ‘Anch’io pugnar sapro’ from ‘Partenope’ (first performed in London in 1730) which is an allegory on the amorous goings-on of  ‘Partenope’ (the Queen of Naples). This contrasted well with the concluding two arias from Handel’s 1724 opera ‘Tamerlano’, one of his truly great operas. The libretto is partly based on Racine’s drama on ‘Bajazet’, the Ottoman emperor who Tamerlano (Tamburlaine) has captured and imprisoned. Bejazet cannot bear the separation from his beloved daughter Asteria and contemplates suicide, ‘Forte e lieto’. In ‘Oh sempre avversi dei,’ a great quasi-dramatic recitative Bajazet takes the lethal poison, imagines a reunion in heaven with his idealized daughter and curses the tyrant Tamerlano. Padmore delivered this with a dramatic conviction which was genuinely moving, as the suicide scene ends in the abrubt silence of death. Although Padmore sang all the Italian arias with vocal perception and the right dramatic inflection, I did feel that at times his Italian pronunciation could have been more clearly delineated. Manze and his ensemble revelled in Handel’s opulently inventive orchestral accompaniment especially in the two arias from ‘Tamerlano’.

As an encore Padmore sung 'Waft her angels' from the third act of ‘Jephtha’, one in a series of late, great oratorios from Handel, with just the right touch of grace and lyricism, with superbly registered sotto voce  vocal articulation.

Overall a marvellously inventive and superbly programmed concert. I would very much like to hear Manze directing a complete Handel, Vivaldi, or indeed Scarlatti (Alessandro and/or Domenico) opera/music drama.



Geoff Diggines






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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)