Handel in Italy
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh, Gillian Webster
St John’s, Smith Square. 28 March 2017
Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D Op. 6 No. 4; Handel: Donna che in ciel HWV233; Dixit Dominus HWV232
Although, in true British fashion, George Frederic Handel is usually claimed as the quintessential English composer, some of his most exciting music was composed during the four years he spent in Italy (1706-10). Early training seemed to set Handel on course to be an organist and church musician, to the extent that he travelled to Lübeck in 1703 with a view to succeeding the great Buxtehude at the Marienkirche. But three years in Hamburg’s opera world (1703-6) changed that ambition, and resulted in an invitation by a Medici to come to Italy. He was already well-versed in the Italian music through his early training with Zachow in Halle, but his ability to immediately absorb national styles quickly became apparent, as it later did on his arrival in London in 1710.
The most interesting part of the programme was the little-known cantata Donna, che in ciel. It was first performed in February 1708 on the fifth anniversary of the 1703 series of Apennine earthquakes. These created extraordinary panic in Rome, and an outpouring of bizarre religious fervour. For reasons best known to themselves, Rome (and Handel) assumed that it was the Virgin Mary that had saved Rome, without wondering why she chose to allow the widespread destruction of buildings in Rome, and many thousands of deaths closer to the epicenters of the earthquakes. Regardless of the religious curiosity inherent in the text (praising Mary for the fake news of ‘saving us from great danger’), it did give Handel a chance to experiment with dramatic word-painting and orchestrations. Although not as polished as his later Italian cantatas, there are some fine moments, notably the extended central Aria Tu sei la bella, with its floating melismas for the original castrati soloist, here replaced by soprano Gillian Webster, curtailing her operatic vocal tendencies to produce an effective Baroque voice. The chorus only joins in at the end, in the intense aria to ‘Mary, hope and salvation of the afflicted world and of languishing mortals’.
The relative obscurity of Donna, che in ciel was balanced by the best known and most polished of his Italian sacred cantatas, Dixit Dominus. Interestingly, it was composed in 1707, a year before Donna, che in ciel, but in a far more confident and musically secure style. The five soloists were drawn from the choir, with notable contributions from soprano Zoe Brookshaw, alto David Allsopp, and tenor Ruairi Bowen. Choir and orchestra were well up to the challenges of this tricky work, which bubbles over with nervous energy. Paul McCreesh relished the drama of the piece in such moments as the dying sequence of non, non, non’s in Juravit Dominus, the crushing hammer blows of Conquassabit, and the concluding learned fugue revealing Handel’s earlier life as an organist where improvising such things would have been his bread and butter.
The concert opened, perhaps slightly curiously, with Corelli’s Op6/4 Concerto Grosso. This was not published until four years after Handel had left Italy for England, although it may have been composed earlier, and Handel may have heard it while in Italy. He certainly knew Corelli (born 32 years before), and his various Concertos Grosso influenced Handel’s later instrumental music, but there is little evidence of influence at the period explored in this concert. That said, it was an exhilarating performance, directed sans conductor by the Gabrieli leader Catherine Martin, and featuring virtuosic playing from her and her fellow violinist Oliver Webber, along with Christopher Suckling on cello and the excellent continuo team of from Jan Waterfield, harpsichord, and Paula Chateauneuf, theorbo.