‘Handel Remixed’, a collaboration between Festival Voices (and original instruments) under Gregory Batsleer, and DJ/electronic music producer Nico Bentley and Pencil Collective, promised to be the most intriguing concert in The London Handel Festival. In fact, though, most of the first half of the concert consisted of (apart from some reverb added on the amplification) entirely straight-up baroque works. The small instrumental ensemble and thirteen members of Festival Voices gave us The day that gave great Anna birth (Birthday Ode for Queen Anne), Lascia ch’io pianga (Rinaldo), May no rash intruder (Solomon) and Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue. Competent performances, all – as one would expect from the group of professionals onstage – but rather too ‘off-the-shelf’. The clumsy amplification, alas, masked the usual subtle timbres of gut strings, such that the sound was anodyne, and Batsleer took few risks with the interpretations. For the Rinaldo aria, the performers fielded a couple of beautifully voiced soloists alternating passages over an a cappella arrangement of the orchestral parts à la Swingles. Sadly, unlike performances by the Swingles, this gained nothing new in the adaptation, and much of the nuance of the original was sacrificed; any opportunity for accentuating the mannered quality of Handel’s elegant sarabande was lost in a legato choral wash.
The remixed material (the opening movement of the Birthday Ode Eternal source of light divine, and a complete performance of the 1707 Dixit Dominus), although interesting, was patchy in its impact. Eternal source was a confused meeting between two genres that had nothing in common: the initial looped echoes of a low electronic note were promising, but most of the piece consisted of a straight performance of the Handel, struggling to compete with an electronic barrage that was at odds with it in both tonality and rhythm. There was no amalgamation of material, just the sort of unfocused clash that’s heard from the corridor in a musically eclectic rehearsal studio.
Dixit Dominus, in the second half, fared rather better. There were instances of genuine fusion that worked well: the opening movement was engineered with a trance-like quality to it, a short section of the second violin was repeated over and over, with electronic material added to create a formless, rhythmical musical cluster that exploded brilliantly into Handel’s original pyrotechnic introduction. This trope was repeated a few times throughout the piece (in the ‘donec ponam’ section, it occurred twice chorally, and a looped violin opened ‘Dominus a dextris’). For the most part, though, Nico Bentley’s contributions were in the realm of commentary on the Handel original (that continued to chug along): thumps and rumbles in ‘Virgam virtutis’; some exciting rhythmic ratcheting, rhythms and swooshing in ‘Tecum principium’, an off-beat rhythm in ‘Judicare’ and some viscerally low electronic doubling of bass notes throughout. The rhythmic electronic additions to the final ‘Gloria’ made for an even more stunning end than Handel’s already-bravura writing produces.
The problem, here, though, was that there wasn’t a great deal of melding of genres. What the project needs is a longer gestation, not only for the performers to get used to each other (some of the trickier choral entries were hesitant, seemingly confused by the Bentley material), but, more radically, for those involved to understand each other’s music more, and then to strip the Handel back to its bare bones and to reconstruct the work as a genuine alloy, rather than Dixit-Dominus-with-bits-soldered-on (the 1995 Bachology album collection contained some excellent examples of this). It’s probably also something best done in a recording studio, as the balance (not only between the two types of musical material, but within the instrumental/choral combination) needed work.