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It was this style of performances that Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra delivered on Sunday 10 December 2006 at the Barbican. In fact, Davis used three different size groups. A small concertante group with one or two strings to a part, a larger group comprising around half the strings and the full orchestra. This latter was large for a modern Handel performance, but not large by symphonic standards, ten first violins and eight second violins.

Davis's performance was highly interventionist. Not only did he vary the textures using his different string groupings but also he mixed and matched the continuo. There was a harpsichord and an organ which Davis used to vary the colours and textures, whereas Handel probably stuck to the harpsichord in solo movements and used the organ in the choral ones. Davis' organ was a rather small, portative affair; it certainly did not look big enough to be able to cope with a Handel organ concerto in the interval, as Handel would have done.

This is one of the big weaknesses in this style of big boned, modern instrument performance, the reluctance to scale everything up in proportion. Harpsichord and organ were simply too quiet for the full body of strings. Similarly, Davis did not increase his wind in proportion so that the full orchestra did not have the bite of oboes and bassoons that Handel would have expected. But as a conductor Davis has a good ear for colour and the results were by no means unpleasing, the balance was far better than in some modern instrument performances.

Even within movements, Davis controlled orchestra textures and dynamics. Sometimes this was inevitable. His speeds were quite brisk at times and his soloists had to take the passage-work at speeds that would have been alien to singers fifty years ago. A helden tenor such as Walter Widdop could have a parallel career as an oratorio singer partly because of the very focussed nature of his voice, but also because speeds were so much slower.

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Copyright © 12 December 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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