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Concert reviews

Handel Day

"Handel's recorder sonatas"
La Cicala
concert: Dec 15, 2018, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

anon: Sonata ŗ flauto solo; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713), arr anon: Sonata in D (Corelli Anh 34); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Sonata in d minor (HWV 367a); Sonata in a minor (HWV 362); Francesco MANCINI (1672-1737): Sonata VII in C; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in G (K 63)

InÍs d'Avena, recorder; Claudio Ribeiro, harpsichord

"Handel's Roman cantatas"
Raffaella Milanesi, soprano; La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
concert: Dec 15, 2018, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Notte placida e cheta (HWV 142); Sonata in b minor, op. 2,1 (HWV 386b); Tra le fiamme (HWV 170)

Anna Stegmann, Thera de Clerck, recorder; Marta Blawat, oboe; Jorge Jimenez, Ayako Matsunaga, violin; Caterina Dell'Agnello, viola da gamba, cello; Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Vanni Moretto, violone; Fabio Bonizzoni, harpsichord

Handel: Messiah (HWV 56)
Stefanie True, soprano; David Allsopp, alto; Nick Pritchard, tenor; William Gaunt, bass; Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht/Johannes Leertouwer
concert: Dec 15, 2018, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Every year the Organisatie Oude Muziek, responsible for the Utrecht Early Music Festival, stages two days, in Utrecht and Amsterdam respectively, devoted to the oeuvre of one composer. This year there were even two such events: in February it was Henry Purcell who was given the honour, this month we had a day devoted to George Frideric Handel. The move from January/February next year to December this year was probably inspired by the wish to perform Handel's most famous oratorio Messiah, which in our time is usually performed during Advent.

For an organisation rooted in historical performance practice, it would have been a good opportunity to restore Handel's own habit to perform Messiah during Lent. This was probably inspired by the fact that Handel was and always has remained a firm Lutheran. For Martin Luther the passion of Christ was the centre of his theology.

The first concert I attended was a recital by La Cicala, the ensemble of the recorder player InÍs d'Avena, who this time was accompanied only by the harpsichordist Claudio Ribeiro. She recorded two discs with music from Naples, which I gave an enthusiastic welcome on this site. I therefore looked forward to this concert, and I was not disappointed.

Handel and the recorder is a problematic issue. Thanks to unscrupulous publishers, such as John Walsh, there has been quite some confusion as to which sonatas are really intended for the recorder. As this was the most popular instrument among amateurs of the time, and publishers were keen to exploit Handel's popularity, a number of sonatas intended for instruments such as the oboe or the violin were published as recorder sonatas. Scholars have sorted out which sonatas have to be considered 'authentic' recorder sonatas, and two of them were included in the programme: the Sonata in a minor (HWV 362) and the Sonata in d minor (HWV 367a). They were given very fine performances: the slow movements were played with great subtlety, the fast movements received a lively interpretation. The contrasts came off well, but InÍs d'Avena did not go into overdrive in the fast movements, unlike some of her colleagues. She was generous in her ornamentation, but again did not go over the top. One of the features of her activities as a scholar and performer is that she always searches for unknown repertoire. The two discs I already referred to include mostly little-known or previously completely unknown stuff, and this concert also featured two recently discovered items. One of these was an anonymous sonata from a Venetian manuscript which InÍs d'Avena thinks could be from Handel's own pen. The second item was a transcription for recorder of a violin sonata by Corelli, which is included in the appendix of the catalogue of his works. That in itself indicates that it is a rather curious piece. Both sonatas are interesting additions to the recorder repertoire. The concert ended with a beautiful sonata by Francesco Mancini, which included some interesting surprises and was given an imaginative performance. In between Claudio Ribeiro played a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, reminding us of the famous competition between him and Handel on harpsichord and organ. This concert by La Cicala was the best possible start of this Handel day. In fact, it was also the highlight of the day, as we shall see.

Next was a performance of two cantatas by Handel, which he composed during his stay in Rome. They may have been first performed at the palace of Marquis Ruspoli, and therefore these two cantatas are well suited to a larger space, such as the chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg. Whereas the scoring of Notte placida e cheta is not that different from what was common in chamber cantatas, Tra le fiamme requires a less common ensemble, in which the strings in the opening aria - which is repeated at the end of the cantata - are joined by two recorders, and in another aria by an oboe. Moreover, throughout the cantata the viola da gamba plays a prominent role. This is quite unusual, as the viola da gamba had gone almost completelyout of fashion in Italy. However, at the time of Handel's stay in Rome the famous German gambist Ernst Christian Hesse was also there, and he may have played this part. Both cantatas can be considered a kind of mini operas, and it was understandable that Fabio Bonizzoni, who with his ensemble La Risonanza has recorded a large part of Handel's Italian cantatas, had invited a seasoned opera performer in the person of Raffaella Milanesi, who clearly felt like a fish in water in these two pieces. She fully identified with the protagonist in Notte placida e cheta and gave a lively account of the story of Icarus in Tra le fiamme. Her ornamentation was stylish, and she resisted the temptation to rewrite complete lines in the dacapos. Unfortunately she used too much vibrato, an infectious disease in modern performances of baroque vocal music. It is time musical directors and audiences start to show a little less tolerance in this department. The instrumental parts were excellently played. Caterina Dell'Agnello deserves a special mention for the performance of the gamba parts in Tra le fiamme and the obbligato cello part in the third aria from Notte placida e cheta.

The main event of the day was a performance of Messiah, performed by the choir and orchestra of the Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht, directed by Johannes Leertouwer. It is common practice these days to perform a kind of mixture of the various versions of this oratorio. That was the case here too. Especially for a performance according to the principles of historical performance practice this is rather disappointing, because this hybrid is simply unhistorical. It would be nice if performers would decide to choose one particular version and stick to that, even if that means that some beloved pieces are omitted or are performed in a rather unusual way. Historical performance practice comes at a price. It was also disappointing that a section of the second part was cut, apparently for reasons of time. However, there were two intermissions, and the second, taking about 25 minutes, seemed to me unnecessary, and therefore a waste of time.

The performances of the soloists were a bit of a mixed baggage. I did not have high expectations of Stefanie True, as in recent years I have been disappointed about her frequent use of vibrato. But she behaved quite well this time, and her solos were quite nice, even though she had to deal with the alarm system's going off twice for no reason. She sang bravely through it all. 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' was particularly well done. David Allsopp's voice is very nice, but not that powerful, and often he was almost overpowered by the orchestra. However, in 'He was despised' he caused the highlight of the night. He created a nice contrast between the A and the B part, and in the dacapo of the A part he added some effective ornamentation. This performance made a lasting impression. There is little positive to say about the tenor and the bass, I'm afraid. Nick Pritchard has a voice I don't like, and his singing was not very subtle. His incessant vibrato was quite annoying, and that also goes for William Gaunt, whose performances also gave little reason for enjoyment. In 'The trumpet shall sound' the trumpet was a bit too loud, almost drowning out Gaunt's voice, which is certainly not without power. Overall I was not satisfied with the way the recitatives were sung, for instance because of the neglect of baroque habits with regard to appoggiaturas.

The choruses were among the best parts of the performance. Sixteen voices is common standard these days, but in Handel's music it is often hard to say what comes most close to his own performances. The balance between choir and orchestra was satisfying. There was a nice and effective contrast between the aria 'He was despised' and the ensuing chorus 'Surely He hath borne our griefs', which was given a powerful performance. The 'Hallelujah' chorus was jubilant enough, but Leertouwer avoided to make it sound too exuberant. The performance came to a close with a firm 'Blessing and honour' and a majestic 'Amen'.

All in all, there was much to enjoy at this Handel day, but as far as the performances are concerned, I have some mixed feelings.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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