Few concerts in recent memory have given such unalloyed pleasure as this, given by the English Concert and conducted by Harry Bicket.Not only was the orchestra on thrilling form, but it was joined by two of the country’s foremost Handelians, Sarah Connolly and Rosemary Joshua.Together and individually they produced singing that was at turns exquisite, ecstatic, moving and utterly beguiling.
Few ensembles are more versed in Handel than The English Concert, which was formed back in the 70s by Trevor Pinnock, and there can’t be many conductors who can match conductor Harry Bicket’s complete grasp of the idiom either. Add two singers who are peerless in this repertoire, soprano Rosemary Joshua and mezzo Sarah Connolly, and you have the makings of Handel nirvana. Indeed this concert at the Wigmore Hall was one of those rare occasions where everything was nigh on perfect.
The first half of the evening was devoted to two of Handel’s operas, Agrippina and Ariodante. Sarah Connolly was mesmeric in the opening aria ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’, from Agrippina and then went on to duet exquisitely with Rosemary Joshua in ‘No, no, ch’io non apprezzo’, their voices blending with sensuous ease. Joshua went on to give an impassioned account of Ginevra’s aria ‘Il mio crudel martoro’ from Ariodante whilst Connolly rightly brought the house down with a bravura performance of ‘Doppe notte’, gloriously voiced, coloured and with plenty of embellishments in the da capo repeat that showed off her rich, flexible instrument to great effect. The duet which closes the opera ‘Bramo haver mille vite’ was sung by both of them with such warmth, tenderness and musicianship that it took the breath away.
After the interval we were treated to excerpts from two of Handel’s oratorios. Joshua was radiant in ‘Will the Sun forget to streak’ from Solomon whilst the orchestra gave us a hell for leather ‘Entry of the Queen of Sheba’, I just hope she wasn’t wearing heals. These were followed by four judiciously chosen arias from Theodora, surely one of Handel’s finest achievements. Rarely has any composer tapped the human psyche like Handel did here, and I don’t think he wrote anything more exquisite than Irene’s aria ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ which was given a reverential, introspective reading by Connolly that was not only incredibly moving but confirmed her status, if confirmation was required, that she has few, if any, rivals in this repertoire. Her singing reminded me of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and no praise is higher.
Joshua was ethereal in Theodora’s ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’ and the two singers came together for the duet ‘Per le porte del tormento’ from Sosarme, re di Media which brought this thrilling concert to its conclusion. This was an evening of total bliss and one that will live long in the memory.