Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The English Concert dazzle with Handel at the Wigmore Hall

2 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

The Wigmore Hall rings in the New Year with a superb performance of Apollo e Dafne.

With the Internet and television it was possible to enjoy both the Vienna State Opera’s annual presentation of Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert the following morning. There is, however, nothing quite like getting back into the concert hall for oneself, and especially when the first event of 2022 at the Wigmore Hall proved to be such an enjoyable one.

The main work in this all-Handel programme from The English Concert, directed from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket, was his cantata Apollo e Dafne HWV122 (1709-10). Although the ending is bittersweet, as opposed to unequivocally happy, the piece as a whole seems joyous and uplifting as Handel’s addition of flute, two oboes and bassoon to the usual strings makes the instrumentation feel particularly bright. In this performance of the story, in which the courageous Apollo is made helpless by his unreciprocated love for Dafne, it was notable how the players worked seamlessly with the singers to capture the feelings of the characters at every turn. 

From the outset Jonathan McGovern as Apollo asserted an extremely smooth and powerful baritone that highlighted the character’s sense of self-importance, as he has just liberated Greece and believes his arrows of war are stronger than Cupid’s. He applied the right level of swagger to his performance, while ensuring that his opening recitative ‘La terra è liberata’ still included some dynamic variation so it was not delivered at a hyperbolic level from start to finish. He and the ensemble thus set everything up to ensure the largest of contrasts as we moved from his rousing ‘Spezza l’arco e getta l’armi’ straight into Dafne’s infinitely tenderer ‘Felicissima quest’alma, Ch’ama sol la libertà’. Chiara Skerath sang Dafne beautifully with her soprano being quite full and vibrant, yet overall feeling exceptionally pure. Her performance was slightly less confident overall than McGovern’s in that she sometimes, although not always, seemed quite dependent on her score, but this was highly understandable as she was replacing a previously advertised Miah Persson. Her first aria certainly left a great impression, supported as it was by the strings’ pizzicato playing and Lisa Beznosiuk’s divine flute solo.

“There is… nothing quite like getting back into the concert hall…”

The moments of real exchange between Apollo and Dafne proved to be some of the best in demonstrating how the soloists and ensemble worked as one, while Apollo’s final aria ‘Cara pianta’ was especially intriguing. McGovern ensured that at least parts of it carried the same sense of power as his opening, although in pursuit of conveying quite different emotions, while the quiet close in which the wind and then strings ‘echoed’ his feelings proved particularly moving.

The evening began with highly accomplished deliveries of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6 No. 5 HWV323 (1739) and the motet Silete venti HWV242 (c.1723-25). Skerath gave an emotive performance of the latter that really captured the arc of the piece. With the first words to her opening recitative ‘Silete venti’, it sounded as if she was ‘silencing’ the orchestra that had been in full flow in the Sinfonia that began the piece. Once, however, she had achieved the silence that enabled her to reflect on, and be sure of, Jesus’ love in her first aria, she was happy in the second to let the winds blow once more, safe in the knowledge that the world turns and breathes by ‘heaven’s radiant air’.

This concert was live streamed on the Wigmore Hall website and will be available for thirty days.

For details of the Wigmore Hall’s and The English Concert’s upcoming events visit their respective websites.

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