Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The English Concert/Cummings @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

15 May 2008

The opening night of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music saw expert Handelian Laurence Cummings directing the English Concert in a programme of works by both Handel and his exact contemporary, Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson, in repertoire that fits her voice like a glove, was at her most radiant in a selection of arias by both composers.

The theme lacing through this year’s festival is The Triumph of Peace, nowhere more apparent than in this first concert. Stretches of peace breaking out amidst a flow of hostilities was an everyday reality during Handel and Rameau’s turbulent times and must have been a very real cause of rejoicing in people’s lives. Accordingly, there’s much fine music to draw from in pursuit of the theme.

Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast depicted the celebration following the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great and, slipped in between the acts, were orchestral showpieces such as the Concerto Grosso in C major with which Cummings opened the evening. Violins slowly drawing together first duelling, then leading a fugal 3rd movement and finally meeting in harmony in the buoyant finale – define the work, incisively directed by Cummings from the keyboard.

Symbols of peace throughout history, birds twittered, fluttered and chirruped throughout the evening. Handel’s aria “Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of Folly”, from L’Allegro, Il Penseroso and Il Moderato, saw Carolyn Sampson on gorgeous form, her voice luxuriating in the accompaniment like a cheeky sparrow hitching a lift on the cushioned barge of some exotic queen. Vying for attention, in melodious rivalry with the singer, was a superb solo from flautist Katy Bircher.

In Handel’s Organ Concerto in F (The Cuckoo and the Nightingale), Cummings at the organ snippily imitated the birds’ calls before launching into a tipsy solo marked Ad libitum, and later Rameau’s “Tendres oiseaux” from Nas drew more tender brilliance from a visibly pregnant Sampson. If anything, the lightness and sweetness of Rameau suits Ms Sampson’s voice even more than Handel; in either, she’s currently peerless.

Until we see Rameau re-established in the opera house as Handel has been in recent decades, we must content ourselves with selections such as made up the second half of the concert. Nas, an “opra pour le paix”, evokes the rattle and roll of battle in its Overture, a depiction of the siege of heaven by titans and giants, before lapsing into peaceful reflection, and the varied interplay of dance movements and arias illicited more brilliant playing from the band and a further flow of glorious melody from the vocalist.

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