Soloists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Superior Handel
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The Independent Culture

Though they have long served as useful recital openers and staple fare for amateurs, Handel's solo and trio sonatas have never been regarded as his highest achievement. Their formulaic adherence to the Corellian model, and not infrequent recourse to plunderings from his other works (and other composers), suggested a certain casualness. An entire programme of such domestic-scale pieces in a hall the size of the QEH, unrelieved colouristically by chamber cantatas, may once have seemed risky. No longer: such is the current glamour of Handel, not even an inclement Sunday evening could keep a large audience away from the blandishments of seven lead players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

It helps that the best period instrument playing these days sounds so nearly to the manner born: nary a sour note in Anthony Robson's baroque oboe, nor any hint of edginess in the golden violin tone of Alison Bury and Catherine Mackintosh to remind one of those tentative, pioneering "authenticks" of only a few decades back. It helped, too, that the continuo parts were so variously realised, ranging from the luxurious resonance of David Watkin's cello, Paul Nicholson's harpsichord and Elizabeth Kenny's theorbo, in the opening trio Sonata in B Flat Major (HWV 388), to the enchantment of just harpsichord and theorebo supporting Rachel Beckett in the gentle Recorder Sonata in C major (HWV 365).

But then, how much more sustained and varied in invention the music itself proved than one had remembered. The first half brought a recently rediscovered and particularly fine Sonata in G Minor (HWV 404) for oboe, two violins and continuo full of gravitas and fugal fire – a spin-off, apparently, of Handel's Chandos anthems. The final Trio Sonata in F Major (HWV 392) opened in florid intertwinings for its two violins of almost improvisatory freedom; took off in a fizzing allegro of lurching chromaticism that suddenly and dramatically hit the buffers, yielding to a plangent Adagio and final Allegro of triumphantly driving rhythm – a work and performance alone worth the ticket price.

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