An evening of Bach in a time warp

James Bowman/London Handel Orchestra | St George's, Hanover Sq, London Madam Butterfly | Coliseum, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's something terribly comforting about sitting in a small, beautiful church on a cold rainy evening, but recent years have shown the London Handel Festival to have grown rather too comfortable. Tuesday night's Bach programme had more than a touch of John Major's time-warped warm-beer and cricket-on-the-village-green Englishness about it, and the demonstrably loyal audience was largely made up of charmingly solicitous elderly ladies who spoke in the interval of Alfred Deller performing Bach for "the Third Programme". Now in its 23rd year, the festival is currently in a state of flux - musically and practically. New blood is urgently needed, but St George's, Hanover Square, has a tiny capacity and the ticket prices are steep for those parts of the church that don't play acoustic merry hell with the music.

Nostalgia for less competitive, more genteel concert-going days does not - to be blunt - put bums on seats, and the only way forward for a small, specialist festival is to ensure an optimally high standard of music-making. To address this, they have appointed a new musical co-director - harpsichordist and conductor, Laurence Cummings - whose task it is to drag the sound and shape of the festival into the 21st century. But on Tuesday night this was still very much work in progress.

The curious thing about the performance as a whole was that there was no discernable whole - just a series of apparently unconnected parts. I'm at a loss to find an easy explanation for the very worst Brandenburg 6 I've heard (and I've heard some stinkers) played back to back with a very good Brandenburg 4 and a fantastic Brandenburg 5, but I suspect some sweeping changes will have to be made in the orchestral fixing. Certainly the toasty central heating that was so appreciated by the audience was wreaking havoc on the gut strings of the players, but all the tuning pauses in the world (and there were a lot) couldn't have rescued the solo violas in Brandenburg 6. I'm a fan of grungy tuning in Baroque repertoire but this was a step too far. The major thirds were so aggressively darkened as to be quite sour and the unison entries were alarmingly reminiscent of a school orchestra. Listening to it was like swinging in and out of focus in the kind of camera effect used when a film noir hero falls prey to a Mickey Finn. The audience controlled its reaction with great politeness - as though a dinner guest had just farted noisily - but there was a palpable sense of relief when the final movement (which had had to re-start) stumbled into the final cadence.

After that bizarre experience, the rest of the instrumental pieces soared. Violinist and leader, Adrian Butterfield, played Brandenburg 4 with such sweetness and fluency that the previous concerto briefly receded from the collective consciousness. The recorder soloists, Rachel Brown and Catherine Latham, took a back seat to Butterfield's virtuosity, fluttering delicately like the wings of little putti, but it was a bit like being treated to a gourmet meal after a rough flight; the food was delicious but no-one had quite stopped trembling from the earlier turbulence. This was the right point for the interval and I, for one, much appreciated a break from the musical bran tub.

The fifth Brandenburg concerto was undoubtedly the highlight of the concert and every bit as impressive as the sixth concerto was excruciating. It's hard to go wrong with this piece (two sizzling fast movements framing a seductively frenchified trio) but it's a rare talent that can re-illuminate such well-known repertoire. The first movement is remarkable chiefly for the harpsichord cadenza - a few minutes of stopped time where the harpsichordist gets a riff as wild and free as a Canonball Adderley solo. I've heard Rousset, Koopman and Pinnock do it, and listened over and over to Andreas Staier's recording with Musica Antiqua Köln, but Laurence Cummings has pushed them off the pile. There were a couple of inadvertent squiggles but it was a divinely shaped and teased confection offset by a startling legato tutti section. The arc of the concerto was fluid and generous, and more than that you cannot ask. I'd really like to see a classical audience just the once treat this piece as the magical uproarious jazz that it is and applaud the various solos as they happen. It very nearly happened on Tuesday but most people settled for Cheshire Cat grins, turning to their friends with a whispered "nice" at the end of Cummings' solo.

The rest of the programme was made up of two solo cantatas. James Bowman - doyen of counter-tenors - can't be far off making a valedictory performance now and I was very conscious of watching one of the greats on their way out. The characteristic lustre of his middle and high range was still very much in evidence in "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" (despite its cruelly low tessitura) but by the end of the evening he sounded weary. The angular central movement of "Vergnügte Ruh" showed some gaps and his held notes had a worn quality like a shiny patch on a suit jacket. The voice is beginning to lose its elastic now, but Bowman knows how to recreate that va va voom with his own vocal accessory box of safety pins and sellotape, and he hooked in the four corners of the audience like a barrister delivering a fruitily mellifluous closing argument.

With such extreme highs and lows it was, if nothing else, a very strange evening. But Cummings is one to watch and the festival is very lucky indeed to have such a careful midwife for its rebirth. After the concert the elderly ladies were still talking about Deller and I could see myself in 40 years time telling a young smart-ass critic about the old days when James Bowman sang for Radio 3. I only hope the London Handel Festival can survive that long.

ENO is now mounting its umpteenth revival of Madam Butterfly, but it's still a powerful production and much to be recommended for those who have so far missed Cheryl Barker in the title role. The pre-concert warning that she might have to step out mid-opera due to a chest infection proved unnecessary: Barker's excellent physical and facial acting conveyed the extreme youth of the self-destructively romantic Butterfly far more effectively than a ton of cosmetics or any artful dress-making, and she brought the house down with a luminous "One fine day" and a chilling suicide scene. Psychologically and sociologically, there is nothing subtle about this production - Pinkerton is revealed as a weak, racist, charmless oaf from the word go - but why be subtle about such a terrible story? Graham Vick's interpretation clearly highlights both the colonial rape of a culture and child abuse - the sanctioned abuse of Butterfly by Pinkerton and Butterfly's unconscious repetition of the tragedy on her child, Sorrow. I now have a grudging respect for that coldly manipulative film Fatal Attraction - what better theme music for mad, sad, bunny-boiling Alex than this? It's gruesome, anti-romantic stuff and reminds you how radical a dramatist Puccini could be.

'Madam Butterfly': ENO (020 7632 8300) until 18 May. The London Handel Festival, (box office 0208 761 3311) until 30 April