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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (19) - Handel (arranged by Mendelssohn), Acis and Galatea: Soloists, Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, FestspielOrchester Göttingen. Conductor: Nicholas McGegan. Usher Hall, 30.8.2009 (SRT)

Galatea – Dominique Labelle

Acis – Christoph Prégardien

Polyphemus – Wolf Matthias Friedrich

Damon/Coridon – Michael Slattery

In this their anniversary year Handel and Mendelssohn have featured heavily in programmes for pretty much any classical music organisation. Here, in a clever piece of programming, the Edinburgh International Festival manages to celebrate both in one night, giving what is probably the British premiere of Mendelssohn’s version of Acis and Galatea (there were preparations for a British performance in the 1860s but we don’t know for sure whether it actually took place). Like their production of Admeto this is the result of a collaboration with the Göttingen Handel Festival, but happily this performance was much more wholly satisfying.

was Handel’s most popular work in his own lifetime, with more than 100 performances recorded, and its mix of a simple story and hugely appealing music makes it easy to love. There are debates enough about which of Handel’s own versions to play before you even consider those made by other composers and arrangers, including Mozart. The Festival have done us a huge service by introducing us to Mendelssohn’s version. The 20-year old Mendelssohn made it in 1829 at the request of his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter as a condition for Zelter’s Singakademie singing in Mendelssohn’s proposed performance of the St Matthew Passion. Interestingly, while Mendelssohn prepared this version there is no evidence that he actually performed it. The charm and bucolic brilliance of Handel’s score is all there, but the orchestration and arrangement are fully Mendelssohn’s and whichever version of Acis you know this one is sure to blow off the cobwebs and open your ears.

So what is actually different? Well unsurprisingly the orchestral (and choral) forces required are much larger and Mendelssohn calls for entirely new instruments, most notably trumpets and timpani, together with a full complement of woodwinds and horns. The heavier textures lend the work much more
power, rendering it full-bloodedly Romantic in places. This is immediately apparent from the opening Sinfonia which sounds martial and arresting where Handel’s is “merely” charming. There are obvious gains and losses to this approach: the transparency of the original score is lost and the busyness of the quick passages tends to be swamped under the weight of the scoring. Sometimes the music can feel a little clogged too, such as in the semiquaver passages for the chorus which feel lumpy and congested in comparison with Handel’s, most especially the fugato section on “Behold the monster Polypheme”. There is also some inevitable loss of intimacy, such as the lovely cadence in the ritornello of Galatea’s opening aria, which is given to the violin section instead of Handel’s solo recorder, thereby sounding grander. However if you can live with this then there is tremendous fun to be had and some really insightful touches. The clarinet line in “Love in her eyes sits playing” adds a whole new dimension to what is already one of Handel’s very loveliest arias and the contrabassoon lends a lot of extra colour to Polyphemus’ “ruddier than the cherry”. The addition of the trumpets and drums means that “Happy, happy we” rollicks along like a chorus of drunken peasants and provides a really storming climax to Act 1, while the larger orchestra and very obvious drum rolls make Acis’ death far more dramatic. Conversely, the gentle woodwinds mean that Acis has a most alluring purl when he is turned into the fountain in “Heart, the seat of soft delight”. While it is fun picking out the differences and listening for the new effects, Mendelssohn’s scoring never detracts from the fact that this is quite wonderful music and my faith in it was only reinforced by the success with which it supports his new instrumentation.

The standout vocal performance was Wolf Matthias Friedrich’s Polyphemus. He made a huge impression on me during Admeto and his characterful voice was perfect for the ridiculous yet lethal giant. Dominique Labelle’s Galatea was bright and clear, providing lots of Baroque transparency against the orchestration, and she was very moving in the final sequence. Christoph Prégardien sang with beautiful lyricism for his gorgeous arias in Act 1, though he had trouble coping with the bravura of “Love sounds th’alarm” where his accuracy slipped. Michael Slattery improved as the evening went on but was nothing special, struggling up to the top notes in his first aria.

The augmented Göttingen orchestra were just fantastic, relishing the opportunity to play this marvellous score. McGegan was in Homogenous Handel mode again (the slow passages were taken too quickly and the fast bits were taken too slowly), as with Admeto, but with such a gorgeously unique performance I could forgive almost anything.

Regardless of the merits of the version I sat through the whole evening with a broad smile on my face. Musically beautiful, this was the most fun night I’ve had all Festival.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th
September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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