London Handel Festival (LHF): Guildhall Cantata Ensemble

Guildhall Cantata Ensemble
London Handel Festival
St George’s, Hanover Square. 21 March 2018

This is the first of a series of forthcoming reviews of the 2018 London Handel Festival (LHF).  The theme for this year is ‘Handel in London’ and is exploring Handel’s musical output as well as his wider entrepreneurial and philanthropic life in Georgian society. The wide-ranging month-long programme of concerts and events includes anniversary performances of two works that Handel composed during his 1718 residency at the future Duke of Chandos’s mansion at Cannons: Acis and Galatea and Esther. It has been traditional for many years to include lunchtime events by student and younger groups of musicians. The first of this year’s such recitals took place in the usual base for LHF events, Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square. It featured students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, with their programme of music by Buxtehude and Handel.

Although Bach’s 1705 visit to the then ageing Buxtehude in Lübeck is well-known, not least because of the suggestion that in order to succeed Buxtehude, he would have to marry Buxtehude remaining unmarried daughter, then in her 30s. What is not so often mentioned is the fact that the 18-year old Handel did exactly the same thing two years earlier, in 1703. For both Handel and Bach, their interest was the famed organ playing of Buxtehude and the autumn series of Abendmusik concerts that Buxtehude’s predecessor had started. It is an interesting thought to ponder how the lives of either of them would have changed if they had become organist of one of the most famous musical churches in the German-speaking world, a post that normally kept their incumbents well until old age, and involved the long-term custom of marriage to a daughter of their predecessor, as Buxtehude and his predecessor had both done, and as Buxtehude’s successor eventually did.

For their concert, the Guildhall Cantata Ensemble interspersed three Buxtehude cantatas with some of Handel’s short Deutsche Arien for soprano – two very different types of music, composed many years apart and for very different reasons and religious concepts. Buxtehude’s cantatas reflect the Pietist tradition of the Lübeck Marienkirche, with its emphasis on the text and the colouring of individual words and phrases, something heard in all three cantatas. We don’t really know why Handel composed his German Arias (HWV 202-210). They were composed in London around 1725, 18 years after Buxtehude’s death, and shortly after composing three of his finest operas: Giulio CesareTamerlano and Rodelinda. Using texts from Berthold Brockes’ Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, Handel, pairs a soprano singer with a solo instrument and a continuo accompaniment.

Clearly programmed to demonstrate the skills of as many students as possible, the various solo and chorus parts were shared between four sopranos, a mezzo and a baritone. The instrumental forces were two violins (paired in the Buxtehude cantatas), a flute and oboe, and a continuo group of harpsichord, organ cello, and theorbo. An additional Handel piece, out of sequence with the rest of the programme, was added at the end, the Queen of Sheba’s aria towards the end of Solomon, ‘When the sun forgot to streak’, here sung by the mezzo, together with all the instrumental forces, including the flute and oboe. From a performance point of view, I did wonder if more recognition of the very different periods and styles of the music could have been expressed more – the style seemed rather similar throughout.

Buxtehude’s opening Jesu, meine Freude, revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the singers, the initial chorus revealing some alarmingly strong vibrato from within the three singers. Fortunately, this was followed by one of the vocal highlights: soprano Avalon Summerfield’s singing of Unter deinnem Schirmen, her clear and focussed (and more-or-less vibrato-free) voice is ideal for this early repertoire. I also like baritone Ben Kazez’s solo, although his machine-gun attack on the repeated opening word Trrrrrrotz, did tempt me to giggle.

The following two Handel arias featured two different sopranos, sadly both with more examples of alarming vibrato. This is certainly not the fault of the young singers, who all undoubtedly have good career paths to look forward to. I blame their successive teachers, who have encouraged them to develop far bigger voices than they are capable of controlling. It is easy to develop a big vibrato, but very difficult to learn how to control it successfully. It was clear which singers had been trained and encouraged in early music singing, and made me wonder why these particular singers had been chosen for this performance. I really hope the Guildhall has more singers working on early music performance than was evident here.

The final soprano to be heard (Chloe Lam, in Handel’s Flammende Rose) had a less pronounced vibrato, and was one the few singers to make regular eye contact with the audience. Flautist Rosie Bowker was very effective, not least in her use of ornaments. The highlight of the Handel performances followed, with Avalon Summerfield and the impressive violinist Sophia Prodanova’s performance of Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle. Avalon Summerfield sang from memory, enabling her to fully engage the audience in this delicate aria. Sophia Prodanova matched her delicacy and sensitivity in her violin solo contributions. Oboeist Hannah Blumsohn also deserves a mention for her playing in one of the earlier Handel arias.

In my reviewing of these lunchtime LHF concerts over many years, I have spotted several young musicians who have gone on to become very well-known figures in the musical world. It would be lovely to think that one or more of these talented young musicians will make the same progression.

 

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