The London Handel Festival has firmly established itself as an important highlight in the city's musical year. One of the original aims, when it was founded 32 years ago by Denys Darlow, was to promote lesser-known works but since the Handel revival has now truly taken grip that category has shrunk and so, unwittingly, there has been a shift of emphasis.
Under the artistic direction of Laurence Cummings (since 2002) rising stars of baroque music have not only continued to enjoy the support of the festival but also the Handel Singing Competition, so it would seem that the festival has developed an uncanny knack of backing winners.
Two such winners were singing in this concert of Handel's Acis and Galatea at the midpoint of the festival last weekend. The ensemble, La Nuova Musica was established by David Bates in 2005 and following the release of their debut album 'Il Circolo Di Giulio Caccini' they are making 2009 their first big year, having already enjoyed residency at the Aldeburgh Festival. This was their London Handel Festival debut and, in my opinion, a great success.
Handel's Acis and Galatea is a popular choice and very much in the public consciousness considering the Dunedin Consort's beautiful album released a few months ago. This was reflected in the healthy numbers of people who came out from central London to the beautiful setting of Canons Park to hear this Masque performed in the church of what was once the Canons estate.
The programme began slightly uneasily with the Organ Concerto in D Minor, uneasily because the organ (Handel's organ from his time with the Duke of Chandos – now much restored) had obviously renounced its tuning whilst it basked in the glorious afternoon sun. Once the players had settled into the unexpected miasma of temperaments the performance was lively and engaging with Mark Williams' enviously nimble keyboard technique very much stealing the show. For the Masque itself, Acis was sung by Nathan Vale (Winner of the Handel singing competition 2006), and Galatea by Lucy Crowe (Finalist 2002); two beautifully matched singers who neatly balanced the expected sound of the traditional early music revival with the newer, more 'developed' manner of baroque singing – perfect for Handel. They were joined by Simon Wall (Damon), Laurence Cummings (Coridon) and standing in at very short notice, Callum Thorpe (Polyphemus).
For an entertainment in which essentially very little happens the chemistry between these five characters is of the utmost importance. David Bates paced the performance well and allowed his soloists the room they needed to keep the emotional tension high whilst still managing to observe the musical gestures and phrases. In the choruses they proved themselves also to be excellent choral singers responsive to the demands of the texture as well as to their own parts. Crowe soared effortlessly over the male voices, maintaining her reputation as an exciting lyric soprano to watch. Thorpe's Polyphemus was less the ridiculous buffoon, rather having something of the quiet loner about him so that there was a palpable sense of personal journey as he was goaded by the manipulative suggestions of Cummings' persuasive Coridon to become the murderer that he eventually turns out to be.
A pleasing dramatic concept was the idea of having recits sung from the side of he orchestra with the soloists coming to the centre for their arias. However, whilst I could not fault the dedication of these singers and their portrayal of the story to the audience, I would have welcomed slightly more interaction between Acis and his lover since I dislike the manner of singing very passionately about the person standing next to you whilst looking only at the audience. Having said that, the note of camaraderie between Vale's Acis and Simon Wall's stylish portrayal of the reflective Damon caught this balance just right.
When action finally did arrive (the massy ruin) Nathan Vale skillfully set a tone of absolute shellshock that the singers carried over into their beautiful chorus and which was followed with a fabulously charged silence. Even though this was managed as well as I've ever heard it, I cannot help but think that Galatea always sounds unavoidably petulant as she sings the next line 'Must I my Acis still bemoan...'. But thankfully Crowe followed it up with one of the most beautiful renditions of the final air that I have heard.
This concert was a major success for La Nuova Musica and, I hope, an important step on their journey to a secure performing future. They have a lot to offer both in sheer performing energy and in musical ideas and we must remember that we heard them first at both The London Handel Festival and the Aldeburgh Festival – without which the UK music scene would be immeasurably poorer and the opportunities for young ensembles impossibly bleak.
By Ed Breen
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CD Review: Dmitri Makhtin plays Bach Violin Sonatas & Partitas (Lontano)
CD Review: Handel's Parnasso in Festa with the King's Consort (Hyperion)