With the Omicron variant wearking havoc and bad news all around, a New Year tonic is sorely needed. On Sunday night, the English Concert provided it, with an all-Handel concert that positively glowed with rich ripe humanity.
As for those many Handel-despisers, the concert would have confirmed their suspicions that there are more clichés in an evening of Handel than in your average Eurovision Song Contest. Round and round they came, those stately harmonic patterns leading us irresistibly in circles back to where we started. However, while they could easily have sounded complacent, the English Concert made them glow.
The orchestra’s leader Nadja Zwiener was especially fine, flinging out the opening solo phrase of the Concerto Grosso in D with such huge force it felt like a triumphal arch in sound. The whole performance had an easy, rough magnificence, not over-refined, so even the courtly swaying dance of the final movement had a relaxed, out-of-doors quality.
Then, on to that crowded Wigmore Hall stage, packed with long-necked lute and two harpsichords as well as 15 players, came the Swiss soprano Chiara Skerath to sing an early sacred motet by Handel, Silete Venti (“Be Silent, Winds”). She was standing in at short notice for Miah Persson, whom many of us had been eager to hear, but any sense of disappointment was stilled the moment Skerath imperiously commanded those gusts, stopping the violin’s rushing notes dead in their tracks. Her voice may have been small and sometimes overwhelmed by the English Concert’s sheer exuberance, but it was always beautifully focused, and she brought to life the transition in the text from storminess to the bliss of faith with wonderful artistry.
That piece certainly had its moments of routine, in the music if not the performance. The early cantata Apollo e Dafne that rounded off the concert was on a different level, because it had the dramatic element needed to fire Handel’s genius. He was clearly amused by the spectacle of the boastful Sun God being turned down by a mere nymph, trying everything from flattery to threats to win her over.
Baritone Jonathan McGovern had fun turning Apollo into a cocky lad-about-town, demonstrating his irresistibility to any passing nymph in some impressive virtuoso passage-work. Chiara Skerath was having none of it, proclaiming the virtue of chaste independence in a tender duet with flautist Lisa Beznosiuk that may have been the evening’s most sublime moment. Pretty soon, the two were embroiled in a furious duet, Apollo on fire with “love”, Dafne incandescent with rage, flinging out their rapid-fire exchanges with impressive virtuosity.
Finally came the miraculous moment when Dafne changes into a laurel to escape Apollo’s clutches. Not a moment too soon, McGovern dropped his laddishness and recovered some god-like dignity for his final aria of regret, which he sang with tender artistry. From the opening grandeur to this final quiet sublimity was quite a journey, and the most eloquent proof that in the right hands Handel’s clichés can become musical gold. IH