Handel: Apollo e Daphne
The Brook Street Band
17 July 2016
Given their name (referring to the London street where Handel made his home) it was not surprising that The Brook Street Band chose to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a concert of Handel: his cantata, Apollo e Daphne preceded by two Trio Sonatas and the ‘Oxford’ Water Music. Normally appearing as a quartet of two violins, cello and harpsichord, they added a flute for part of the Water Music, and oboes, bassoon and viola for the cantata. All the instrumental pieces had an interesting back story, starting with the opening “Trio Sonata from Saul” (HWV 403). The word ‘from’ is a bit misleading, as this sonata does not appear in Saul, but is based on the same music. It is not clear which came first, the oratorio or the sonata, and it is a bit of a shock to hear the powerful opening of Saul played on such diminutive forces.
They followed this with a similarly curious work, the so-called ‘Oxford’ Water Music suites, named on the basis of the score being housed in Christ Church library, and once belonging to the University music society. Scored for two violins, bassoon and continuo, for this performance the bassoon was replaced by cello, and a flute and piccolo was added for the two G minor pieces. As there was a bassoonist waiting backstage for the second half, I did wonder if it could have been performed with the specified instruments. It is not clear why, or for which audience, this version was intended. It is not in Handel’s hand, and there are some compositional oddities, one being the awkward-sounding octave doublings between violin and cello in the opening ‘Aire’.
Their final instrumental piece was from the 1738 Opus 5 publication, almost entirely made up of borrowings from other Handel pieces. Sonata No 4 includes an impressive Passacaille movement. In this, and the opening Sonata, I did wonder about the group’s timing of gaps between movements. In the ‘Saul’ sonata, there was a big gap between the end of the Andante larghetto and the following Allegro, despite the strong cadential linking passage seeming to indicate that the two movements should be more directly linked. The opening Allegro and the following A Tempo Ordinario of the Op5/4 Sonata were joined together, despite being fairly clearly indicated as being separate movements.
These pieces were played with conviction and a nice sense of spirit. The two violinists, Rachel Harris and Farran Scott, worked well together tonally and musically, with Rachel Harris in particular demonstrating some lovely ornaments and elaborations, notably in the first ‘Saul’ sonata. Carolyn Gibley’s harpsichord continuo realisations were commendably restrained. Tatty Theo only had occasional moments to shine on continuo cello, but did so in the final Allegro of the ‘Saul’ sonata.
The highlight of the evening came in the second half with Handel’s delightful dramatic cantata Apollo e Daphne, a typical Arcadian story of boy meets girl; girl rejects boy; boy argues (sensibly using the ‘Calm down dear’ approach followed by reminders of Daphne’s future of fading beauty), threatens violence, and pleads; girl turns into tree. Judging by soprano Nicky Kennedy’s dress, it looked as though the culminating tree-transformation was to be into a silver birch, rather than the laurel of the myth. Those in the audience who hadn’t read the programme, or didn’t know the piece, might have wondered why Daphne walked off near the end, only to reappear with a laurel wreath on her head. Apollo, here sung magnificently by Matthew Brook, has by far the biggest role, with two opening arias and the closing scena where he promises to “water Daphne’s leaves” and “wear her on his head” – which he didn’t, on this occasion, leaving the laurel wearing to Daphne.
Mafalda Ramos provided a lovely obligato flute to Daphne’s aria Felicissima quest’alma, with bassoonist Nathaniel Harrison similarly impressing in Apollo’s Mie piante correte with his depiction of Apollo’s running feet.
This was an excellent culmination of 20 years of surviving on the early music scene.