MUSIC Acis and Galatea, QEH, London

Nick Kimberley applauds the passing moments of drama in a musically poised account of Handel's pastoral masque
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The Independent Culture
Arcadianism was an intellectual disease of 18th-century aristocrats, and music often gave form to its pastoral idylls. No wonder baroque has become the National Trust's Ambient (country) House. I, for one, can only take so many warbling nymphs and swains, but Handel's Acis and Galatea is witty and, of course, superbly musical. It benefits from being staged: I recall a pro-am production in a community centre, where the building's faceless modernity made the perfect foil for the libretto's "purling streams and bubbling fountains".

There are some for whom the period-instrument movement is mere theme- park pastoral, but they're fighting a losing battle. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday, Trevor Pinnock directed his English Concert in a soberly unstaged performance of Handel's masque, although the faintest whiff of theatre occasionally permeated the hall. As Hans Peter Blochwitz rose to deliver Acis' "Where shall I seek the charming fair?" he peered longingly around, imploring the "kind genius of the mountains" to point him towards his beloved Galatea. There were clasps of manly respect beween Acis and Rufus Muller's Damon, but Barbara Bonney's Galatea, some distance away from her singing paramour, seemed determined not to acknowledge that Acis and Galatea tells its story dramatically. Even as she and Blochwitz trilled and cooed "Happy we! Thou all my bliss, thou all my joy!" Bonney ignored Acis' every loving glance.

The mood changed with the arrival of the lustful giant Polyphemus. Jeremy White suddenly rose from the backstage depths and, feet planted like a defiant rugby forward, bellowed, "I rage, I melt, I burn!" In the process, he seemd to melt Bonney's frosty demeanour. As Polyphemus apostrophised her with his monstrously overblown "O ruddier than the cherry," Galatea turned away disdainfully - a move which, naturally, only further inflamed the giant's blustery ardour. Such tiny details of byplay added to the audience's pleasure, which is surely the point.

Pinnock has been taking his players through this repertoire for decades, and, with the ensemble reduced to chamber proportions, they performed with graceful panache. With the theorbos producing wonderfully tinny clangour, especially in the recitatives, and outstanding contributions from oboist Paul Goodwin, the sound was pliant, pointing up the rhythms without over- emphasis. The chorus moved easily from the gentle humour of "Oh, the pleasure of the plains!" through to the restrained joy of advising Galatea that Acis has become part of the water supply.

The soloists sang from memory (although all but Jeremy White had the music for use in emergency). Bonney's sweet vibrato was more prominent than I remember, but the tone was as pure, the ornamentation as decorous as ever. Blochwitz sang with a better English accent than Handel apparently possessed, and with a pleasing ache in the voice; his control over Handel's ornate lines was exact. Muller's light tenor fell easily on the ear, while White managed to be comical without sacrificing musicality. As the music died away on a note of ambiguous rejoicing, the silence in the hall spoke volumes for the quality of the audience's involvement.