Handel is often described as a theatrical composer, but, as this concert reminded us, that term means a lot more than making an audience feel that flies are buzzing around them, as happens in Israel in Egypt. Even Handel’s ‘purest’ music reveals dramatic traits in its command of thematic development, heightened contrasts, and tension and release, and in the OAE, directed here by Laurence Cummings, lies an orchestra that not only understands Handel’s music, but also his soul.
The evening opened with the Overture to Saul, where the OAE illustrated how this piece reveals the origins of the independent orchestral symphony. In the opening Allegro, the sense of a conversation being set in motion was clear, as the dialogue between the two sets of strings, and between strings and wind, accelerated as the movement went on. The following Larghetto was a more delicate, sensitive affair that featured particularly fine oboe playing, the second Allegro saw Cummings introduce a further layer of intrigue on the harpsichord, while the closing Andante larghetto was simply exquisite.
The Concerto Grosso in B flat Op. 3 No. 1 HWV312 that followed saw Matthew Truscott deliver a stirring violin solo in the opening Allegro, producing a vibrant, rolling tone, with vibrant response from the oboe. The pace was sensible, being taut enough to generate excitement, but never so bold as to make the rhythms feel tugged. The recorder, oboe and bassoon solos in the following Largo were all compelling, creating a dual sense of circularity and development, while particularly impressive was the way in which Truscott’s solos in this movement and the final Allegro, though different in temper, revealed synergies that made the concerto come across as a coherent whole.
The final piece before the interval was the Organ Concerto in D minor Op. 7 No. 4 HWV309, in which Cummings took the solo and revealed the piece’s intrinsic musical qualities and not inconsiderable sense of joy. The second half opened with the Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No. 11 HWV329 in which there was strong dialogue between the two sides of the orchestra and excellent solo work from Truscott and Kati Debretzeni who headed the first and second violins respectively. The only difficulty was that so striking and confident was Truscott’s playing that even when the first violins were all together, ears were drawn solely to him rather than to the section as a whole.
The night’s final piece was the overture to the opera Il pastor fido, although at over twenty minutes in length it would match any of Haydn’s symphonies. For me, the most moving part was the melancholic Adagio in which the expressive oboe saw its exquisite line echoed in the strings before the bassoon and double bass took over. What really marked this performance out, however, was the way in which this then gave way so cleverly to the vibrant and exuberant final Allegro.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk