‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’
London Handel Festival
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
Anna Devin, Maria Ostroukhova, Nathan Vale, Derek Welton
St George’s, Hanover Square, 23 March 2018
The Handel Singing Competition was inaugurated as part of the London Handel Festival in 2002, and counts several well-known singers amongst the past finalists, if not always amongst the past winners. Several former finalists have become regular performers at subsequent festival events, and this concert was one such. It featured four past finalists, three from 2006/7 and one far more recently, from 2016: two first prize winners, one 2nd prize winner and two winners of the audience prize. Handel was known to have encouraged younger singers, and the title of ‘Mr Handel’s Scholars’ refers to the name by which his young proteges were known. Each half opened with an overture, following by a range of extracts from Handel operas and oratorios, several of which are standard fare at singing competitions.
The opening Overture to Alcina (1735) was followed by the aria Verdi prati, originally sung by Giovanni Carestini who, much to Handel’s annoyance, initially returned it saying it was unfit for him to sing – a brave man! On this occasion, mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova (2nd prize winner in 2015) took the place of the original castrati singer, her richly-toned voice underlying the pathos of the text but perhaps representing a rather later vocal style than that I generally associate with singers of Handel’s era, with portamento and vibrato being a little too evident for my taste. She later demonstrated commendable skill and vocal agility in the virtuoso showpiece Dopo Notte.
Soprano Anna Devin (2007 audience prize) was the next singer, with a singing competition favourite, Tornami a vagheggiar negotiating its distinctive syncopations and flamboyant flourishes well, and applying agile ornaments to the da capo repeat. In the second half she sang the gentler Rendimi il dolce sposo from Arminio. Again, excessive vibrato was an issue for me. Tenor Nathan Vale (2006 first and audience prizes) sang ”I know thy virtues – Descend kind pity’, ending with an impressive low note. The agility of his voice was demonstrated in the later ‘His mighty arm’ (from Jephtha), the rapid lines and ornaments again being compromised by a strong vibrato that, as so often happens, bounced along at a semiquaver pulse causing some havoc with the sung semiquavers and ornaments.
Baritone Derek Welton (2007 first prize winner) was one of the highlights of the evening with his performance of ‘See the raging flames arise’ from Joshua. Despite his reputation and experience as a noted singer of Wagner and his ilk, his vibrato (which, of course, most singers have to a certain extent) was far less prominent than his more early-music focussed companions. He had earlier impressed me with the gentler ‘Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine’ from the Wedding Anthem (HWV 263) written for Frederick, Prince of Wales’s marriage to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha’s. Handel’s choice of text was apt, as she went on to bear nine children, including George III. This included the only real instrumental moment of the evening, with Katherine Sharman’s elegant obligato cello accompaniment and concluding solo flourish.
Laurence Cummings introduced the pieces with some commendably brief and apposite descriptions as to what was going on in each musical extract. The London Handel Orchestra provided excellent support to the singers in a wide range of musical moods, as well as in the two contrasting Overtures that opened each half.
I have reviewed the Handel Singing Competition for many years, and have often wondered whether the prizewinners are really being chosen for being the best singers of Handel’s music, as opposed to the best for singing any repertoire, including the later romantic era with its very different vocal style and technique. That said, most of the past finalists (and, indeed, semifinalists, where I have often found my own best singers choice) have gone on to successful musical careers.