Classical: Handel in youth and age

Click to follow
The Independent Culture






HANDEL'S ORATORIOS have been a boon to festival organisers ever since musicians gathered in Westminster Abbey to mark the composer's centenary in 1784. Tuneful arias, memorable choral idioms and English words helped to establish a handful of his weightiest vocal works in the repertoire, but an exploration of the breadth of his oratorio output and the depth of their musical depths had to wait for the early music movement.

Those behind the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and the BOC Covent Garden Festival tested the box-office potential of Handel's second attempt at Italian oratorio and his final thoughts on the English variety, Lufthansa getting off the ground with La Resurrezione, Covent Garden presenting Jephtha as a spectacle of sound and light, both events gaining capacity audiences.

Each performance featured period instruments, fair to fine soloists and a sense of dramatic pacing that underlined Handel's feeling for theatre in youth and old age. However, the early progress of La Resurrezione, shaped with energetic conducting gestures and flamboyant keyboard playing from Ivor Bolton, suggested how Handel's Italianate oratorio style might sound in an English church on a wet June evening.

Lapses in the string playing, moments of sour wind intonation and scrappy ensemble jarred, especially so given Deborah York's sweet lyric coloratura and Gail Hennessy's solo oboe work in the Angel's first aria. York showed a real love for Handel's music, never pushing the tone or expecting her voice to deliver dramatic outbursts alien to its character. Subtlety and good taste were the mark of her bel canto style.

Although apparently not in prime vocal health, Emma Kirkby managed to lift the earthbound qualities of the work's first part with Ho un non so che nel cor, invested with lightness and grace and, above all, an intelligent and compassionate response to the moment where Mary Magdalene fears that news of Christ's return to life is a deception.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen fared well in the challenge of presenting Jephtha in Freemason's Hall, despite the practical difficulties of performing to an audience in the round and translating a work usually given from the book into a piece of music theatre done from memory. The director Aidan Lang did well to shift soloists around without fuss, and made telling use of spatial separations and confrontations between characters, complemented by the Star Wars-style lighting of Ivan Morandi.

That said, I would question whether theatrical presentations and technical gimmickry add anything to Handel's late oratorios, concerned as they are with human emotions rather than heroic deeds. The most convincing drama in this Jephtha came not from stage or lighting business but from Harry Christophers' shrewd judgement of speeds, excellent orchestral and choral contributions, and outstanding work in the minor roles from David Wilson- Johnson and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Mark Padmore's Jephtha lacked power and authority in his warlike arias, but there were compensations in his eloquent delivery of "Waft her, angels, through the skies", while Helen Williams' delicate lyric coloratura and fair countenance suited Handel's vision of Iphis.