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Swansea Festival Of The Arts (2) - Purcell, Handel, Haydn: Dame Emma Kirkby (soprano), Adrian Butterfield (violin), Rachel Brown (flute/recorder), Alastair Ross (organ/harpsichord), The London Handel Players, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 5.10.2009 (NR)

Purcell: Suite from Abdelazer
Handel: Arias from Alceste and Riccardo Primo; ‘Sweet bird’, from ‘L’Allegro’
Handel: Organ Concerto no. 13
Haydn: Two Welsh folksong setting
Haydn: Symphony no. 104, ‘London’

I suspect I may not be alone in having grown a little weary of centenary programmes this year, although it is now October, and there shouldn’t be too many more. This one found an unusual angle for its choices, as the majority of the works had some connection with London theatres between 1695 and 1800 - even Haydn’s last symphony was premiered at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket – and the concert was organised to complement its centrepiece, one of the increasingly rare appearances by Emma Kirkby. Given the celebrated bird-like qualities of her voice, having her perform a succession of what might best be described as avian-themed arias by Handel, in which the voice is constantly in close dialogue with the flute or recorder, seemed to be sailing a little close to self-parody, but there was far too much musical intelligence on show for that. It seemed to me indeed that her voice has softened and even humanised from what one remembers from her earlier days as, in every positive respect, piercing. If she no longer has quite the old projective force, there is ample compensation in the exquisite phrasing, the perfect sense of colour and shade in these lovely miniatures. Rachel Brown, on the baroque flute, was a marvellously sensitive and virtuosic accompanist, partner rather, in intimacies that even the Brangwyn Hall couldn’t quite swallow.

Incidentally, with all these birds flying about – and there were more, in the Handel organ concerto nicknamed, for unsubtle reasons, ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’, it was a small masterstroke to turn the hall seating around, place a small stage at the bottom end, and with the help of good illumination allow the audience to contemplate by far the most attractive and least often noticed triptych of Frank Brangwyn’s panels, the ones with the brilliantly painted fruits and foliage and the smallest number of people. The concerto itself was stylishly played by Alastair Ross and the Handel Players, a tight, elegant ensemble with a real feel for the period.

Haydn’s Welsh song settings are strangely polite, given the almost abrasive uses to which he could put Eastern European folk music in his earlier works; whereas in those he brings the rustic world into the court, here it seemed to be a matter of making the rustic courtly, not greatly to the advantage of either, although again the performances were charming. These arrangements, dating from 1803, were among Haydn’s last compositions, and the concert had opened with one of Purcell’s last, the Abdelazer suite, written for the revival of Aphra Behn’s tragedy of that name in 1695. Everyone knows the Rondeau that Britten used, in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, although I imagine many are surprised to find it the second rather than the last piece in Purcell’s sequence, now we’ve been primed to associate it with grand finality. Elsewhere the music seems to transcend its origins in English airs and dances, and to be reaching towards the possibilities of string sound that Corelli would introduce and that Purcell died too young to explore further.

The final item was a curious and intriguing rarity: Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony, no. 104, in Salomon’s contemporary arrangement for string quartet, flute and continuo. This couldn’t but sound somewhat underpowered, even though the harpsichord did its best to suggest the missing low registers, and the other instruments found a surprisingly effective range of colours. It gave a glimpse of the Regency world of transcriptions and reduced versions of famous pieces, the only ways in which many music-lovers would ever hear them – and it was an impressive enough performance to send one rushing home for a CD to hear the real thing.

Neil Reeve

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