It has been said that if you combine the entire compositional output of Beethoven and J.S. Bach that you won't equal the volume of music produced by Handel. Whether or not this claim is strictly quantifiable the fact remains that Handel was one of the most prolific composers not just of his age, but of any age. With a businessman's eye to opportunity and a pragmatism that saw him end his days in unusual comfort and wealth, Handel was a prolific re-user of his music, adapting and borrowing freely both from his own back-catalogue and even the works of other composers on occasion. Composed in 1708, the sacred oratorio La Resurrezione proved a particularly fruitful source of material, with whole movements later resurfacing in (among others) Agrippina and Amadigi – works that have since eclipsed in popularity their tune-laden and dramatic original. Tuesday night's concert by Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d'Astree was a welcome reminder of this neglected gem of a work, and a surprise tour of some of Handel's greatest operatic hits.
Following the traditional two-part structure of the Italian oratorio volgare, La Resurrezione represents the height of Handel's middle-period, bearing all the stylistic and structural influences of his time in Rome. After a Papal edict banned the performance of opera, composers were forced to turn to the oratorio form for their drama; these works were performed, if not quite in staged interpretations, then in fairly elaborate settings – the lavish first performance of La Resurrezione on Easter Day even had a painted backdrop. The drama and humanity of the music itself echoes this secularity, and the Handel of La Resurrezione is many miles away from the English oratorio composer of Solomon or Saul. The work explores the musically neglected period between the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, as seen through the eyes of both heavenly and earthly participants – Lucifer, Mary Magdalene and St John the Evangelist all make their appearance in this colourful piece, which in the hands of Haim and her band proved by turns humorous and movingly humane.
The signature rhythmic attack and front-accented approach of Le Concert d'Astree is not to everyone's taste, but reliably makes for performances both earthy and thrillingly elegant – a seductive combination that more than compensates for the occasional moments of brittle showmanship. Demanding an unusually large orchestra – records suggest that 35 string players featured in the first performance, augmented by four oboes, recorders and even a trombone – the impact of the work's full sections was exciting, and provided a foil to the intimate virtuosity of the continuo group directed from the harpsichord by Haim herself.
The soloists were a little more uneven. The stand-out honours of the night went to bass Lorenzo Regazzo, whose floor-shakingly resonant lower registers came into their own in Handel's playfully dramatic villain. Regazzo proved himself an accomplished actor in the recitative sections, capturing both simultaneous pantomime humour and menace of the figure. His opening aria 'Caddi, e ver' (better-known as Claudio's 'Cade Il Mondo Soggiagato' from Agrippina – apparently all villains enjoy a good tune) was an effective scene-setter, and a delicious tour of his richly dark range.
Opening the entire work is a virtuosic invocation by the Angel 'Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno' ('Be unbarred ye gates of Avernus'), a piece of sparkling coloratura of which Camilla Tilling made light work, dancing efficiently and unselfconsciously through its many difficulties. Sadly after the thrills of this opening show-stopper the Angel's repertoire becomes rather more staid, and gave Tilling less of an opportunity for showing off her dramatic and technical capacity. Fellow soprano Kate Royal fared better as Mary Magdalene, with a series of impassioned recitative sections, and arias that included the caressing lullaby 'Ferma l'ali', set to the rocking accompaniment of lower strings and recorder duet – reminiscent of the glorious 'Gia l'ebro' from Orlando – which she dispatched tenderly, if somewhat safely. The highlight for her however was the Passion aria 'Per me gia di morire', whose strange chromatic shiftings vividly explore the suffering of Christ. Her gilded and ful-toned melody line worked well against the accompanying unison wind, and created a movement whose emotion came close to the twisting anguish of a Bach aria.
Toby Spence's tenor voice is really a salon instrument; small and perfectly formed, it rather suited the invariably smooth and lyric music of St John. His delightful 'Cosi la tortorella' set a gently pastoral melody line against an aggressive scalic accompaniment in unison strings – an unusual and rather difficult juxtaposition that he sustained well, rendering its potentially rather lumpy texture with elegant command. I was however less convinced by mezzo Sonia Prina's St Mary Cleophas. Experienced Handelian though she is, her voice often felt rather edgy in the upper registers, and the (admittedly viciously difficult) aria 'Naufrande va per l'onde' felt both scrappy and frenetic – a fault arguably shared by Haim's rather unsympathetic tempo. Her singing, though undoubtedly musical, was built around so many articulations of light and shade that one was left lacking any solid tone to cling to.
In general however I was charmed by Handel's first oratorio in Emmanuelle Haim's energetic and gutsy rendering, and hope that with champions such as these this unusual work may emerge into more mainstream performance culture.
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