Could there have been a better start to the 2023 London Handel Festival?
Although not exactly a rarity, Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75 of 1736 does not enjoy as many outings as its brilliance clearly merits. This may be because it is perceived as falling at a time when Handel was undergoing the transition from writing Italian operas to English choral works, meaning that if one is interested in performing the latter the temptation is to opt for such fully fledged oratorios as Saul, Messiah or Samson. If this is so, however, it is a shame, for it ignores the fact that the success of Alexander’s Feast played its own part in encouraging the composer to make the transition, while the varied and overwhelming nature of the work speaks for itself.
This performance, which constituted the opening concert in the 2023 London Handel Festival and fell on Handel’s 338th birthday, made an extremely strong case for the piece by presenting it in its original form. Handel was to revise the music for performances in 1739, 1742 and 1751, but the audience at St George’s, Hanover Square was able to hear it more or less as it would have been performed at its premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre on 19 February 1736. This means that the London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings, performed all three of the concertos that appeared in the original version. These were the Concerto in B flat major for Harp, Lute, Lyrichord and other Instruments, HWV 294, in which the harp playing of Lisa Vandersmissen was particularly sublime, the Concerto Grosso in C major, HWV 318 and the Organ Concerto in G minor, HWV 289.
The piece sets Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music, which had been written in 1697 for the Feast of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. It had previously been set by Jeremiah Clarke in 1697 and Thomas Clayton in 1711 (although neither version has survived), but the writer Newburgh Hamilton was convinced that Handel could create something special from Dryden’s words and persuaded the composer to do so. The ‘story’ sees Alexander the Great and his lover Thaïs in the captured city of Persepolis celebrating their victory over Darius and conquest of Persia. At the feast the court musician Timotheus stirs Alexander’s emotions with his singing to such an extent that he decides to burn the city down in order to avenge the fallen Greek soldiers.
“This performance… fell on Handel’s 338th birthday…”
The facts that Alexander’s decision derived more from drunken high spirits than righteous vengeance, and that after the event he deeply regretted what he had done, are both completely ignored. Thus, while Dryden expressed certain reservations about music’s ability to arouse such hatred and destruction, Handel’s total belief in its expressive power saw him jump on the dramatic and musical possibilities of the events described, largely ignoring the moral dimensions.
This performance brought out to the full all of the different moods and emotions that Timotheus conjures with his music, with Handel having designed the varied score to make us feel joy, sorrow, vengeance and love at different times. As is naturally the case with an ode, the emphasis is on relating events and Handel cleverly works with this by not presenting Timotheus’ songs, for which Dryden provided no words in any case, directly. This introduces another layer of intrigue because when we hear, for example, the tenor describe how Timotheus ‘With flying fingers touch’d the lyre’ we are left to imagine the divine nature of the music he is producing, which it is easy to do when what we hear in the flesh is so beguiling in its own right.
The chorus, comprising the London Handel Singers and National Youth Chorus of Great Britain Fellows, played its part to the full and shone particularly at the end. Following the destruction of Persepolis, it announces the arrival of Saint Cecilia herself, after which we learn that while Timotheus’ ‘pagan’ songs may summon base emotions, the new sacred music that she embodies elevates and inspires virtuous deeds. The choral fugue that ended the piece was then delivered so well that it was possible to appreciate the technical strengths of the performance, even while one was simply feeling uplifted by the music.
The three soloists all sang from the pulpit in St George’s which helped give their proclamations particular gravitas. Joshua Ellicott, replacing an indisposed Stuart Jackson, revealed an expansive tenor and his delivery style felt quite free and easy. This proved to be highly effective for relating events, as the role requires, and the audience soon forgot just how disparate the requirements placed on his singing were because everything felt so smooth. Revealing a very firm bass, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance was extremely assured, while Lucy Crowe was simply a class act. With her beautiful soprano being so accomplished, her sound could glisten on the surface even while there was so much else going on within it. The moment at which she described the burning of Persepolis with an unnerving sweetness and serenity marked out the brilliance of her own performance, as well as that of Handel’s writing to set up such paradoxes in the first place.
• The 2023 London Handel Festival continues until 18 March, with a performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion following on 7 April.
• For details of all events and tickets visit the LHF website.