Thursday 20 March 2014

Stunning technique and musicality - Rupert Charlesworth at Foundling Hospital

Rupert Charlesworth
Rupert Charlesworth
Handel arias and suites: Rupert Charlesworth, Laurence Cummings: London Handel Festival at the Foundling Hospital Museum,
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 19 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Stunning technique and musicality from Rupert Charlesworth and Laurence Cummings in an intimate Handel programme

Handel had a strong connection with the Foundling Hospital, supporting it with annual concerts. So a recital of Handel's music in the Picture Gallery of the Foundling Hospital Museum is a profoundly apt confluence. Whilst the museum dates from the 1930's the Picture Gallery and the adjacent Court Room reconstruct the rooms from the original building, with its pictures by Hogarth and others of the Georgian great and good. Last night's recital (19 March), part of the London Handel Festival was given by tenor Rupert Charlesworth with the artistic director of the festival, Laurence Cummings, at the harpsichord. Their programme combined three of Handel's solo harpsichord suites, works in which we get close to Handel's own style of playing, with arias from Alcina, Rodelina, Samson, Acis and Galatea and Theodora

Laurence Cummings - photo Robert Workman
Laurence Cummings
photo Robert Workman

Rupert Charlesworth won both the 1st Prize and the Audience Prize at the 2013 Handel Singing Competition (and having heard him in this recital, I can understand why). Part of the prize is an appearance at the following year's festival; in face this recital was one of two he was giving at the 2014 festival.

Giving recitals in aristocratic salons was a regular part of Handel's performance schedule, as these helped to promote and gain subscribers for his opera and oratorio seasons. Such performances might include his own improvisations at the harpsichord, as well as accompanying singers in choice selections from forthcoming operas or oratorios. Charlesworth and Cummings recital gave us a little taste of this both in the musical programme and in the recital's location.

Handel's suites for harpsichord seem to preserve something of the composer's own highly improvisatory style at the instrument. Cummings opened with Handel's Suite in F HWV427, which has a typical slow-fast-slow-fast structure. The opening Adagio with its combination of lyrical melody and spread chords was extremely free, the following Allegro was vigorous with Cummings giving us some lovely even passagework. Throughout the recital Cummings gave repeated demonstrations of his fabulous finger-work. The second Adagio was also free, but this time with both hands taking melodic material, and the final Fugue was wonderfully perky.

Rupert Charlesworth then joined Cummings to perform Why does the God of Israel sleep from Handel's Samson HWV57. Charlesworth has a lovely lyric tenor voice with an interesting depth of tone to it, including a strong lower register. He combined a fine feeling with the words with a stunning account of the music including some superb passagework; the result was technically thrilling, musical and highly dramatic. They followed this with Oronte's recitative and aria E'un Folie e'un vile affetto from Alcina HWV34. This was taken at a terrific tempo, with Charlesworth again demonstrating a facility for even passagework at speed , still combined with a highly expressive performance and very vivid. Charlesworth's ornaments in the da cap were very stylish, adding passing notes to the melody rather than recomposing it.

Next Cummings play Handel's Suite in A HWV426. The opening Prelude was again very free with its striking arpeggiated passages, followed by the engagingly attractive Allemande and surprisingly lyrical Courante. Both movements were highly developed and a long way from dance movements. The final Gigue seems to have been deliberately written to be amusing and was a great delight in Cummings hands.

The final item in the first part was Septimius's air Dread the Fruits of Christian Folly from Theodora HWV68. Cummings and Charlesworth took this at a very brisk pace with Charlesworth using the strikingly sung fast passages to really bring out the intensity of the drama in an aria which can all too easily simply pass for bluster.

After the interval Cummings and Charlesworth started with an extra item, Grimoaldo's aria Se per te from Handel's Rodelinda HWV19. We had dazzling runs again, this time rather pert and perky, with a lovely swagger and sly charm to the whole aria.

Cummings followed this with the final Handel suite, the Suite in E HWV430. We had free a flowing improvisatory Prelude followed by richly textured and melodic Allemande  and Courante, all subtly played by Cummings. The final Air and Doubles was the well known Harmonious Blacksmith variations, and a great delight it was too.

Charlesworth joined Cummings for a second air from Samson, this time Samson's opening air Total eclipse. Here Charlesworth sang finely, with giving a lovely shape to the opening unaccompanied phrase. His essentially lyric tenor is perhaps not yet meaty enough for this part, but Charlesworth gave an intelligently musical account of the air which promised a great deal for the future. Next he sang Consider, fond Shepherd from Handel's Acis and Galatea HWV49 (an air which shares some melodic material with the Courante from the Suite in A HWV426). Here we had lyric charm galore, combined with delightfully appealing personality conveyed through the music.

The final item on the programme was the accompanied recitative and aria Fatto inferno and Pastorella from Handel's Rodelinda HWV19 in which Grimoaldo effectively has a breakdown (in the recitative) and announces he'd rather be a shepherd than king (in the aria). Charlesworth's command of the drama in the recitative was admirable, especially as this was combined with a superb projection of the words. Then the aria was just as complex, very far from a simple pastoral; a performance which was highly dramatically absorbing. Again in the da capo Charlesworth's ornaments were very stylish and did not break the melodic line or recompose it.

We were treated to two encores. First of all Charlesworth gave us a stunning account of Belshazzar's Let festal joy triumphant reign from Handel's Belshazzar and then Cummings not only accompanied him but joined him in a duet for Monteverdi's Zefiro torna. Both performers showing great delight in their music making whilst giving us some stunning singing.

The Court Room - Foundling Hospital Museum
The Court Room - Foundling Hospital Museum
In this programme Rupert Charlesworth gave us some very fine Handel singing indeed, he has an enviably strong technique combined with the ability to use it to highly musical and dramatic purposes, plus a very strong and attractive stage presence. I certainly hope that we get to hear him in a major role at a future festival. Throughout Charlesworth was admirably supported by Cummings highly proficient and very characterful harpsichord playing. Cummings demonstrated both his skill and his ability to convey the music's very real personality in his performance of Handel's solo suites.

Before the concert and during the interval we were free to wander round the Foundling Hospital Museum, to explore the both the historic Picture Gallery and Court Room, as well as the exhibition on Handel's music for Royal occasions, with its collection of Handel ms. It was very inspiring to be able to see Handel's original for such wonders as the Coronation Anthems and the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne.
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