Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Saxon reserve and Italian passion - Nicki Kennedy and the Brook Street Band

The Brook Street Band
The Brook Street Band
Handel cantatas & trio sonatas; Nicki Kennedy, the Brook Street Band; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 28 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Margherita Durastanti: Handel’s Italian Muse - asurvey of Handel's relationship with soprano Margherita Durastanti

Handel’s near-contemporary,the Italian soprano Margherita Durastanti, had a long association with the composer before she was supplanted by Francesca Cuzzoni. The Brook Street Band’s cellist Tatty Theo has been piecing together her story and presented some facts, together with some speculations, in a fascinating pre-concert talk at St John's Smith Square on Sunday 28 February 2016. The band was joined by soprano Nicki Kennedy in a programme which included the cantatas O Qualis de coelo sonus HWV 239, Armida Abbandonata HWV 105 & Crudel Tiranno Amor HWV 97, arias from Giulio Cesare and two Trio Sonatas.

A caricature of Margherita Durastanti, drawn while she was prima donna at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, Venice, between 1709 and 1712.
A caricature of Margherita Durastanti
drawn at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo,
Venice, between 1709 and 1712.
Handel and Durastanti worked together in Rome in 1707, and on and off until 1734 when the singer left London and seems to have disappeared from view after a high-profile – and somewhat fiery – international career. The flamboyant, glamorous and politically savvy Italian Catholic must have captured the imagination of the Saxon Protestant. Handel wrote several major roles for her including the title role in the cantata Lucrezia, with its acrobatic coloratura and treacherous register changes, the trouser role of Sesto in Giulio Cesare, and several religious and church cantatas.

As well as an amazing technique, she seems to have been an excellent and versatile actress. In her later career (and she must have been 50 when she was last in London) she seems to have gone down to mezzo-soprano territory without losing any of her vocal agility. And were they lovers? It seems the logistics would not have facilitated such a thing, either on the first encounters when she was chaperoned, or on the later ones when she was married to a rather incompetent businessman.

Soprano Nicki Kennedy certainly navigates this coloratura well, and this is a good, clean voice. But she didn’t sustain the long notes after the acrobatic passages, which often deprived the singing – and the audience – of the drama. She was rather too dependent on her score too. We have perhaps all been rather spoilt by the Handel we have seen at ENO over the years, and have come to expect an operatic rather than oratorio style of delivery of this repertoire.

The Brook Street Band have been playing together for twenty years and Handel – who was one of Brook Street’s most famous residents – provides them with their core repertoire, though they also play JS and CPE Bach and contemporary composers. On this occasion they played two early trio sonatas. The first in G minor was part of his Opus 2 set, written (allegedly) when he was only 14 years old. It did not have the instantly recognisable Handelian features, owing more to Italian influences, but the third movement, a mellifluous largo, was full of gorgeous suspensions and perfectly suited to the acoustic of St John’s Smith Square.

In the second half they played a trio sonata in G major from the Opus 5 set. Very varied, all of the six movements dance-able and many tunes recognisable as being recycled from other work. This was the highlight of the afternoon and no member of the audience managed to keep their feet still. Everything about this seemed perfectly judged: the precipitous glissandi from Rachel Harris on first violin, echoed by Farran Scott on second, with spot-on tuning and and improvisatory feel throughout. The fact that the huge curtain behind the platform was closed made for an intimate, private feel (other small ensembles performing at SJSS should take note).
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Nicki Kennedy – soprano
Rachel Harris – violin
Farran Scott – violin
Tatty Theo – cello
Carolyn Gilbey – harpsichord

GF HANDEL (1685-1759)
O Qualis de coelo sonus HWV 239
Trio Sonata Op 2 No 2 in G minor
Armida Abbandonata HWV 105
‘Cara speme’ from Giulio Cesare
Trio Sonata Op 5 No 4 in G
Crudel Tiranno Amor HWV 97

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