MUSIC / And lo, 260 years later, it came to pass

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The Independent Culture
AN ORATORIO called Deborah? Somehow it didn't have a promising ring. But turn to Judges 4: 18-21, and you see what Handel had in mind. Sisera, the enemy of Israel, Deborah prophesied, would be done for by a woman. And how: 'Jael took a nail of the tent and took an hammer in her hand' and riveted the tyrant to the ground with a tent peg through the temples. 'So' - as the Bible says - 'he died'. What better story to enliven a flagging winter season in 1733 and pack in the crowds?

' 'Tis excessive noisy,' wrote one woman after the first performance at the King's Theatre, Haymarket. 'A vast number of instruments and voices, who all perform at a time.' The period instruments of the King's Consort and voices of Salisbury Cathedral and New College, Oxford, were noisy, too, when reviving the oratorio last Sunday at the Albert Hall. Handel's need to complete the work, fast, had meant borrowing music lavishly from earlier works - his Brockes Passion, Chandos Anthems, Dixit Dominus and others - and this didn't go down too well with later gener ations; hence the need to revive it now. Pastiche was no sin in the 18th century - nearly every aria in Bach's Christmas Oratorio is borrowed from one earlier work or another - but 19th-century audiences objected to Deborah's dubious parentage, and the oratorio fell out of use.

Probably all it needed was a performance like Sunday's. On CD, the King's Consort are bright and enlightening. The surprise at the Proms was how thrilling they managed to sound in the baggy vastness of the Albert Hall. Take Barak, the effeminate warrior goaded into defence of the sons of Israel, written for the star castrato of the 1730s. On Sunday, he was played by James Bowman, and I found myself struggling to describe this extraordinary counter-tenor. You can almost taste the sound Bowman makes; it's so rich, so rounded, you could eat it. In one aria it sounded as if Papageno had stepped from The Magic Flute and was going into battle instead: 'We'll with slaughter float the plains' threatened the libretto, but flutes trilled and organs piped. 'All danger disdaining, For battle I glow; Thy glory maintaining, I'll rush on the foe.' Bowman danced on his enemy, stirring the audience, little caring for the quality of the verse.

The other soloists were a match for Bowman - especially Yvonne Kenny as Deborah, her voice chiming perfectly with his. But it was the chorus that stapled the piece together. As pagan priests invoking 'O Baal' over a weird perpetuum mobile accompaniment they made a magnificently strange, unholy choir. And when they sang 'Jehovah lends a gracious ear', so the old God did; the bass treading softly downwards as He graciously condescended to listen. In the other direction, when the final, massive chorus sang 'Let our glad songs to Heaven ascend', the hymn really did fly up, vanishing into the ether as the music abruptly died. Simple musical allegory and a sense of theatre are what make Handel's oratorios so alive and comprehensible. And such music] Sunday mornings can only be brighter when the CD appears next year.

Someone should do a study of programme notes. Robert King's for Deborah had the audience leafing between libretto and commentary, anxious not to miss a trick. Tuesday's was different altogether. This was the type that tells you the music you've come to hear wasn't worth the journey. 'The F minor concerto,' it said, is 'a more enjoyable experience if heard in the knowledge of the very different and finer things Chopin went on to do later.' Try telling that to the women on my right, up from the country.

Throughout the concerto their eyes were tightly shut, their lips sealed in private adoration.

Chopin does this. His sound is so personal, we think of him as our own. Streaking along the F Minor Concerto's decorated paths, Vladimir Ovchinikov had the hushed promenaders standing to attention. But Chopin's second concerto - like Beethoven's, composed before his first - is a 20-year-old's big step into the Romantic world, and it wanted more passion. Only later did the BBC SO under Yakov Kreizberg really let go, in Tchai kovsky's Pathetique: full-blooded Romantic, a symphony 'far too novel and difficult', as Shaw wrote, 'to leave the band any middle course between playing it well and not playing it at all'. The band played well, no doubts: Russian fire kindled by their young conductor, and Tchaikovsky's final agonies left the Albert Hall completely still.

And not coughing, either. The next evening, in Gorecki's Old Polish Music, composed seven years before the chart-busting Third Symphony, coughing was done mostly in the loud brass bits. Just occasionally a snort landed in one of the string bits, but the orchestra didn't flinch. It was a piece where the dovetailing of sections counted as much as the sections themselves. Harsh horns gave way suddenly to churchy shufflings in the strings, playing canons on an ancient theme by one Waclaw z Szamotul, and the effect was strangely unearthly. The music, on the whole, was characteristically endurable.

The orchestra was the BBC Scottish SO, and on our way into the hall we met its leader - handing out leaflets. The players are campaigning against a planned merger with Scottish Opera: standards will fall, they say. Which would be a shame, as standards are currently high - thanks largely, no doubt, to Jerzy Maksymiuk, the Principal Conductor. Just look at him: clasping his baton (not a big thing) in both hands during a frantic Eroica, and scything violently; or seeming, in the andante of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, to bound in slow motion through fields of ripe corn (the elegant soloist was Anthony Marwood). It did the trick. The true musicians in the audience below, promenading with their pocket scores, applauded heartily. And so did I.

Michael White returns next week.

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