Prom 24, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Handel's passion for working into the small hours must have inspired the decision to programme one of his early masterpieces in the late-night Proms slot. Acis and Galatea, done with an outstanding cast, period-instrument colour and no little flair, would once have commanded a prime-time position and a big Albert Hall audience. The Proms powers are now apparently content to diminish sure-fire box-office returns in favour of extending Radio 3's bedtime listenership. Consequently, Handel's pastoral masque made its debut at the festival before a half-full house, begging questions about the timing of a performance that almost certainly will stand among the season's top five.

While intimacy was not the driving force of this often full-blooded interpretation, the variety of expression engaged by the four soloists and matched by the Academy of Ancient Music unlocked the full rhetoric of Handel's score. Rosemary Joshua shaped seamless phrases without a trace of effort, beguiling the ear with Galatea's "Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!", and later drawing out the tender emotional depths of "Heart, the seat of soft delight". The eternally eloquent soprano occasionally rocked Handel's pastoral idyll with false entries and tiny slips, minor deficiencies that troubled much less than her delivery of almost inaudible mezza voce shadings for the benefit of the radio microphones and those listening beyond the Albert Hall.

The Arcadian delights of the work's first act were boosted by crystal-clear yet warm sound from the AAM Chorus, set at a healthy size of 25 singers and encouraged by the conductor Paul Goodwin to leave nothing in reserve when negotiating big moments. Goodwin clearly knows how to prepare a finely polished show but, thanks to fussy hand gestures, not always how to avoid getting in the way of natural, effortless phrasing. That said, he gave an appealing, direct reading of the score that highlighted the sheer beauty of Handel's writing.

There was beauty in abundance, too, from James Gilchrist, on heart-melting form in Damon's final air "Consider, fond shepherd". The singer appears, however, to have developed the mannerism of moving his head and shoulders with a force that interrupts his otherwise pristine delivery, creating unnecessary problems in the coloratura embellishments of Damon's first song and generally detracting from the pleasures of such a natural voice.

Both Gilchrist and fellow-tenor Toby Spence did their best work following the entry of John Tomlinson, on leave from Bayreuth to sing Handel's Polyphemus. Tomlinson's Jove-like physical and vocal presence was no doubt touched by his recent success as Wagner's Hagen, bringing seductive advantages and charisma to "O ruddier than the cherry" and a cavernous low D in his second song. The Tomlinson effect inspired a vibrantly heroic reading of "Love sounds th' alarm" from Spence, and set course for the moving final exchanges between Galatea and chorus.

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