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Handel's Spanish soul

MALCOLM MILLER attends an inspiring concert
at the London Handel Festival 2005


Spanish music is not often associated with Handel, yet his cosmopolitanism apparently extended beyond his German, Italian and English influences, to encompass Iberian textures and texts, as shown by his sole foray into Spanish text setting, in the lively and colourful Spanish Cantata No se emendera jamas. It was given a beguiling and brightly textured performance on 5 May 2005 by Trinity College of Music Baroque ensemble conducted by their director Philip Thorlby, programmed alongside an Italian cantata and two instrumental works, as one of the highlights of the month long London Handel Festival 2005. In the rewarding acoustics and splendid architectural surrounds of Handel's own St George's Church, Hanover Square (built at the time Handel moved into his house at 25 Brook Street) the sonorities of this period ensemble with two outstanding young singers gained immediacy and relevance.

Soprano Claire Troth conveyed the two love poems interspersed by a lengthy recitative with beauty and richness of tone, and stylish ornamentation in the da capo repeats of each aria. Handel's setting of the first poem features an evocative guitar introduction, delicately projected by James Akers on a baroque guitar, while the syncopated melody reaches a powerful climax at the words 'cada dia crecen mas' ('grow greater every day'), yet in the repeat there is a telling sigh on 'cada'. The final aria 'Dicente mis ojos' is livelier and sprightly, also in a triple time dance-like meter, and the whole has a definitive Spanish flavour in its rhythms and textural effects, such as strumming articulation and ornamentation.

Also enthralling was the remarkable Italian cantata from 1708, Tra le fiamme, in which three arias interspersed by recitatives lead to a final reprise of the first, resulting in a rather progressive cyclic structure. Rather than a mere continuo accompaniment, the soprano Karolina Gorgol was here supported by a luscious ensemble of three strings (no viola), theorbo and guitar, harpsichord and an obligato viola da gamba, played by Ibi Aziz. The poems compare love to a flame which can harm the lover, as it does to moths attracted to fire, and to Icarus's fateful flight to the sun. Each aria contains vivid word painting: colourful triple trills depicting moths in the central section of the first aria 'Cadon mille farfalle nel foco', a plunging line for 'il cader e costume' ('they will always fall'), and running triplets in thirds in the poem about Icarus' flight. Yet the chief quality of the work is its light Italianate rhythmic charm, and the dialogue and duet sequences and coloratura for the soprano and viola da gamba, enhanced by the textures of the whole ensemble. The return of the minor mode of the first aria at the conclusion provides dramatic resolution to the work where the poet's deceived heart is inflected with irony.

The excellent cantata performances were set into context by two purely instrumental works, Handel's Organ Concerto Op 4 No 6 played with agility by Robert Broad and a rather exciting pre-Handelian work, Godfrey Keller's Sonata in C, performed with panache by the fresh combination of two violins (Siv Thomassen and Barbara de Barros), two recorders (Patricia Mahon and Ferdia Stone-Davis) and continuo (Mercedes Romero Fernandez, harpsichord, Nathlaie Fransen, theorbo and Iason Ioannou, cello), and replete with delightful concertante dialogues between the strings and woodwind and a particularly affecting slow movement. Much credit is due to Philip Thorlby for his charismatic direction of a first rate student ensemble whose very professional performances brought to life an inspiring yet oddly unfamiliar aspect of Handel's oeuvre.

Copyright © 7 May 2005 Malcolm Miller, London UK



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