Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/McGegan; <br></br>The English Concert/Pinnock, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A contrast of authenticity
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The South Bank's Discovering Handel series is developing into something of a beauty parade of our best period performers. Already this month selections from Handel's extensive, if slightly ad hoc, orchestral output have burgeoned to the treatment of two quite different-sounding ensembles.

Originally founded back in 1973, The English Concert still preserves something of the drive and crispness that marked our earliest "authentic" orchestras, though its director, Trevor Pinnock, never entirely subscribed to the Christopher Hogwood hardline approach of obliterating all traces of phrasing and expression that might be thought to be remotely anachronistic.

Under Nicholas McGegan, by contrast, the equally "historically informed" Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment proceeded to play with such sustained assurance and fullness of tone that, but for the bucolic rasp of its period horns, one might almost have been back in the days of those sumptuous old symphonic arrangements of Sir Hamilton Harty.

But then McGegan's choice of Handel suites were from among his most richly scored. The Concerto a due chori No 2 in F, from that marvellously varied late collection of three orchestral sequences, buttresses its strings with two antiphonal ensembles of reed instruments and horns, and never mind that half the movements are reworkings of earlier oratorio choruses and whatnot.

And in the Music for the Royal Fireworks, the 36 players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment captured the energy, if not quite the grandeur with which Handel alone seemed able to articulate massive diatonic textures.

Trevor Pinnock's programme included a more modest medley from the Water Music, in which his tempi were occasionally more laid-back than of yore, and the Organ Concerto in B Flat, Op 4, No 2, in which he played the solo on a bright little 18th-century chamber organ which was loaned from the Handel House Museum in London.

But, as if to remind us that, for Handel at least, orchestral and instrumental writing remained, in the last resort, secondary to opera and oratorio, both concerts encompassed vocal works as well.

McGegan brought in that poised and even-toned soprano, Dominique Labelle, to deliver the recently rediscovered Gloria – a florid conflation of clichés sounding like any number of other baroque composers – and three far more individual and intensely felt opera arias from Rodelinda, Rinaldo and Tolemeo, respectively.

Trevor Pinnock and his well-drilled Choir of the English Concert opened with an efficient enough Zadok the Priest. They closed, however, with a Dixit Dominus – that extraordinary half-hour of impetuous apostrophes, marmoreal contrasts, poignant respites and fugal rampages – of mourning excitement. But then what other young composer in history ever declared their genius with more flamboyance than Handel did here at glorious 22?