Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Mr Handel's Scholars

Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Charlesworth, Josep-Ramon Olivé, London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings (Photo Maxine Robertson Management)
Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Charlesworth, Josep-Ramon Olivé,
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
(Photo Maxine Robertson Management)
Handel; Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Charlesworth, Josep-Ramon Olivé, London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings; London Handel Festival at Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 28 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Celebrating 15 years of the Handel Singing Competition with for former finalists

The London Handel Festival's Handel Singing Competition reaches its 15th anniversary this year and to help celebrate four former finalists in the competition, Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies, Rupert Charlesworth and Josep-Ramon Olivé, joined Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra for a gala concert at the Cadogan Hall on Monday 27 March 2017. The music, all by Handel of course, included items from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, Rodelinda, Dettingen Te Deum, Acis and Galatea, Rinaldo, Solomon, Messiah, Jephtha, Saul and L'Allegro, plus the Concerto Grosso in B flat major Op.3, no.2.

The evening got off to a slightly slow start. The London Handel Orchestra took a while to get accustomed to the acoustic of the Cadogan Hall, which is larger yet drier acoustically than the group's regular home of St George's Church, Hanover Square. And in the opening item, 'Eternal source of light divine' from Handel's Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, Iestyn Davies' liquid line seemed slightly less effortless than usual, whilst trumpeter Stephen Keavey was unfortunately having lip problems.

The temperature raised however with 'Pastorello d'un povero armento', Grimoaldo's aria from Rodelinda sung by Rupert Charlesworth. Starting with a vivid accompagnato, Charlesworth created a strong dramatic presence, and whilst the aria might have been in siciliano rhythm there was nothing light about the performance, with Charlesworth creating an intense sense of character.  Josep-Ramon Olivé's account of 'Vouchsafe O Lord' from the Dettingen Te Deum was quieter and more gentle, yet beautifully phrased with highly communicative English.

The problem with a Handel gala is that the scope for vocal ensembles is limited, so whilst the trio 'The flocks shall leave the mountains' is not the most obvious piece to be excerpted from Acis and Galatea, it did give us the opportunity to hear Ruby Hughes, Rupert Charlesworth and Josep-Ramon Olivé together. Hughes and Charlesworth gave a lyrical yet strongly sung account of the duet, with Olivé's interruptions as Polyphemus notable for the sense of character he brought to the role.

Next it was the orchestra's moment in the spotlight with the Concerto Grosso in B flat major Op.3, no.3. The opening Vivace was brisk and crisp with some nice passagework from the soloists, Adrian Butterfield and Theresa Caudle. In the Largo the duetting cellos were characterful though they lacked the sense of effortlessness which oboist James Eastaway brought to his beautifully floated lines. There was an engaging vitality to the Allegro whilst the Moderato brought the wind delightfully to the fore and wind and strings gave us characterful exchanges in the Allegro complete with a highly characterful bassoon (Nathaniel Harrison).

The first half concluded with Iestyn Davies on stunning form in 'Venti turbini' from Handel's Rinaldo, Davies demeanour on stage suggested an element of discomfort at performing the piece in concert, out of character. But this was a stunning showpiece which Davies, Cummings and the orchestra performed at a cracking pace with Davies producing apparently effortless passagework.

Part two opened with a pair of works from Handel's Solomon, first the Act Three sinfonia, 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' and then 'Will the sun forget to streak' plangently sung by Ruby Hughes  with a lovely sense of character, complemented by fine solos from oboe and flute. Next we turned to Messiah when Josep-Ramon Olivé performed 'The trumpet shall sound'. Olivé's sense of phrasing in the recitative was very fine, whilst his light and fluid account of the aria had a nice trenchant quality too, and trumpeter Stephen Keavey showed a return to form.

Hughes and Davies sang the duet from Esther, 'Who calls my parting soul'. This was short, yet perfectly formed with two beautifully balanced voices, but it was a shame that we could not have had the following aria. One of the problems with the gala format is the need to balance everyone's contributions and fit everything in. The result, at the Cadogan Hall, was occasionally pieces seemed a bit short and you wished that we could have had a group of items from Esther rather than a tiny duet.

On a more substantial scale, Rupert Charlesworth performed 'Deeper and deeper still' and 'Waft her angels' from Jephtha. Charlesworth showed an impressive sense of control in the long recitative, and gave a simple and direct account of the aria, making it deeply moving. Equally moving, but strikingly different, Iestyn Davies performed David's air 'O Lord, whose mercies numberless' from Handel's Saul. For the last item  on the programme Rupert Charlesworth joined Ruby Hughes for an entrancing account of the duet 'As steals the morn' from Handel's L'Allegro.

Except that was not the end. We heard one final item, with all four soloists singing in an arrangement of 'Lascia io pianga' from Rinaldo.

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