Wednesday 16 November 2011

Acis and Galatea, ECO/Leppard, 15 November 2011

Cadogan Hall

Acis – Ed Lyon
Galatea – Ruby Hughes
Polyphemus – João Fernandes
Damon – Richard Edgar-Wilson

Dame Janet Baker (narrator)
Choir of the 21st Century
English Chamber Orchestra
Raymond Leppard (conductor).

There was something charmingly of another age – an apparently gentler age, which, like the pastoral idyll itself, may not ever have existed – to this performance of Acis and Galatea. It was not only a matter of hearing Handel once again from Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra, welcome though it was to hear the composer’s music not only on modern instruments, but in a performance that did not treat those instruments as if they must discard all their advantages over predecessors – or, more likely, modern copies – and ape their whining tones, their lack of warmth and tuning, in short their gross technical and musical disadvantages. After all, an age in which Baroque music was not a matter of abrasiveness, of ‘effects without cause’, of hysterical promotion of hair-shirted exhibitionism, did once exist: we have a host of recordings from Leppard and the ECO to show it.

Dame Janet Baker was of course present on a good few of those. Her presence on this occasion as narrator, her delivery, and Leppard’s narration itself fitted into a form of presentation redolent of what some of us might imagine the wireless Home Service once to have been. I am not sure that the experiment is likely to be widely repeated, nor that it should be, consisting as it did in descriptions of the action to come, a little explication of situation, and some gentle humour that might have sounded strained when Abigail’s Party was but a twinkle in Mike Leigh’s eye. A wryer framing might better have suited our age’s world-weary cynicism, and we could have done with fewer recurrent mentions of the plains. (The temptation to include a ‘Rain in Spain’ reference certainly ought to have been resisted.) Nevertheless, it would take a heart considerably harder than mine not to be more than a little charmed – and grateful, if for the first and perhaps last, time, to hear Dame Janet back in the concert hall. Her well-spoken Yorkshire tones remained just as one recalled, similarly her graceful demeanour; I for one was delighted to savour them and should have been equally delighted by the opportunity to have heard a bedtime story in such vein.

I had no qualms whatsoever concerning the performance from Leppard and the ECO, a delight from beginning to end. The Sinfonia was lively and well articulated, breathing air that was as theatrical as it was pastoral; and so it continued. If Leppard’s interventionism in the music of composers such as Monteverdi and Cavalli grew more controversial as his career progressed, it might be thought still more so in Handel. (‘Authenticke’ conductors such as René Jacobs take almighty liberties, but that, apparently, is another matter.) Not unreasonably, Leppard took his cue from Handel’s later practice in post-Cannons performances, for instance at the Haymarket, and added a few parts here and there, not only violas and sometimes other, additional string lines, but even – and this, I admit, came as something of a jolt – a glockenspiel for the chorus, itself the beneficiary of a spot of (re-)composition, ‘Happy, happy! Happy we!’ If the truth be told, the effect was a little de trop, closer to Papageno than to the rejoicing Israelites of Saul; moreover, I could not help but think that the number would have been better left as a duet, which we heard, prior to the entry of the chorus. There are far more grievous sins, though, than the occasional gilding of a lily.

Other decisions were less interventionist, as stylish as the instrumental performances themselves. The poignant delicacy of Galatea’s ‘As when the dove laments her love,’ was as much a matter of dialogue, between oboe and marvellously fruity bassoon, conducted against a chamber organ backdrop, as it was of Ruby Hughes’s limpid and at times radiant vocal delivery. I very much liked the balance between ‘English’, Purcellian directness and the warbling of the sopranino recorder in ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!’ A melting oboe solo in the penultimate aria and chorus, ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ proved another highlight. Continuo playing – organ and harpsichord were employed, though not, as once might have been the case, played by Leppard himself – was both reliable and imaginative throughout.

Hughes’s contribution I generally found winning, though there were times when her diction might have been stronger. Richard Edgar-Wilson’s brief appearance as Damon – a part that might without great loss be cut – also suffered a little in that respect, though his coloratura was excellent. There were no such problems, however, from the other male soloists, Ed Lyon as the lovestruck Acis and João Fernandes as the giant, Polyphemus. ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ was an especially touching example of Lyon’s artistry, which showed that, even in ‘concert performance’ – there was throughout a degree of acting, tending somewhat towards the ‘semi-staged – he knew how to act as well as how to sing a Baroque da capo aria. So much was captured in a gesture, a glance, as well of course as in the shaping of words and phrase, that one needed no more: a Handelian tableau vivant, as Leppard outlined in the programme. The da capo return in beautifully hushed tone, love not only playing but already threatening ‘delicious death’, was truly a moment to savour. On a micro-level, the judgement shown in a revealing crescendo on the second syllable of ‘alarm’ in ‘Love sounds th’alarm’ betokened both musical and dramatic sensitivity. Fernandes’s facial expressions exhibited a degree of the gentle grotesque: amusing, touching even, without becoming merely silly. His theatrical experience showed equally, like Lyon’s, in his way with words; the lightly accented English seemed delightfully apt in context. This again is a singer of whom I should like to hear – and to see – more. In the trio, ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains,’ Hughes, Lyon, and Fernandes all helped to show that Handel is perfectly capable of expressing action as well as mood through music – making it all the sadder that opera seria would rarely offer him that opportunity. The Choir of the 21st Century contributed in lively fashion, though the solos in the opening chorus were a little weak. That was soon forgotten, however, and the sense of playful resolution in ‘Galatea, dry thy tears,’ was theirs as well as Leppard’s. More please!