Friday 8 May 2015

John Beard - Handel's favourite tenor

John Beard
Where'er you walk: Handel's favourite tenor - music by Handel, Boyce, Arne, Smith; Allan Clayton, Classical Opera, Ian Page; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 6 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Celebration of the great tenor John Beard's 300th birthday with a programme of music written for him

This year is the 300th anniversary of John Beard's birth and Classical Opera chose to mark the event with a concert at Wigmore Hall. Conducted by Ian Page, they were joined by tenor Allan Clayton for a programme of music written for the great 18th century tenor. Beard's name is, of course, principally associated with Handel for whom Beard sang a remarkable number of roles and Handel wrote him key roles such as the title roles in Jephtha and Samson. Allan Clayton sang a selection of these, performing arias from Il Pastor Fido, Ariodante, Alcina, Berenice, Samson, Semele, Judas Maccabeus, and Jephtha but we also heard music by other contemporary composers which was written for Beard with arias from Boyce's Solomon, Arne's Alfred and Artaxerxes, and J.C.Smith's The Fairies.

John Beard (1715 - 1791) was associated as a tenor soloist with Handel from 1734 (shortly after his voice broke and he left the Chapel Royal) until Handel's death and he almost certainly sang all of Handel's leading tenor roles and much else besides. Handel started out writing secondary tenor parts for him in the Italian operas, but this progressed to the leading roles in Samson and Jephtha, a remarkable tribute to his musico-dramatic powers in an age when tenors were never leading men. Inevitably the concert concentrated on Beard's career with the major composers of the time, but he spent most of his life on stage and also had a long association with stage roles such as Macheath in The Beggars Opera.

We started with the overture to Handel's Esther, a work which Beard sang as a treble in the choir of the Chapel Royal in 1732. (For those doing their sums, boys' voices broke at a far later age than nowadays). This was a graceful performance and full of character. The strong wind tone, with some love oboe playing in the Allegro, was complemented by a lovely even string tone.

Beard sang in a revival of Handel's Il Pastor Fido in 1734, shortly after leaving the Chapel Royal; Handel remodelled the role of Silvio for Beard's tenor voice (the role was originally an alto) and Allan Clayton performed the aria Sol ne mezzo risona del core, a piece just for voice and continuo. His voice was vibrant and firm, with an inner strength to it yet surprisingly mobile and he sang the are with infectious charm.

The evening's music followed in chronological order, gradually working its way through Beard's career from 1734 to 1762, over which period we must assume that his voice developed in power and intensity, but seems not to have lost any of its flexibility. The role of Lurcanio in Ariodante (1735) was the first which Handel wrote specifically for Beard; clearly the young singer was capable of some dexterity and virtuosity. We heard the lively aria tu vivi, e punito which Allan Clayton sang with a nice virile swagger, and a lovely evenness of voice in the passage-work, supported by a crisply involving accompaniment from Ian Page and the orchestra.  Here and in the other Da Capo arias in the evening, Allan Clayton's ornamentation generally involved extra passing notes and he did not stretch the tessitura of the piece resulting in something nicely stylish.

Oronte's aria Un momento di contento from Alcina (1735) followed, to which Allan Clayton gave a lovely caressing tone to the line and sang with intimate confiding tone, with fine soft touch to the Da Capo. Berenice came from 1737, and Allan Clayton sang Fabio's aria Vedi l'ape che ingegnosa which combined a lyrical vocal line (of course with passage-work) with a busy string accompaniment. Allan Clayton sang with a lovely gleam in his eye.

For 1742 we moved from Handel to his younger contemporary William Boyce whose Solomon preceded Handel's work of the same name, though Boyce's piece is a serenata and has no dramatic content at all. The orchestra gave a lively crisp account of the overture from Boyce's Solomon and we could hear some imaginative touches in the orchestration. Allan Clayton then followed with Softly rise, o southern breeze, a lyrical, pastoral piece which was notable for the long lyrical bassoon solo in the work's introduction and the bassoon continued to duet with the tenor in a delightful manner.

The final work in the first half was the first title role which Handel wrote for Beard, Samson (1743). We heard Thus when the sun from's wat'ry bed which opened with a dramatic accompagnato to which Allan Clayton gave vibrant character and firm voice, then in the aria we heard a beautifully lyric line which continued the feeling of inner strength and firmness. There was a good feel for the text, with the line Each fetter'd ghost being very evocative, and the whole performance made me rather consider the aria anew.

After the interval we moved from the virile strength of Samson to the lyrical beauty of Jupiter in Handel's Semele (1744), from which we heard Where e'er you walk which was performed with a mellifluous line and a love sense of words. There were some memorably beautiful moments, and a sense of real poise in part two. Call forth thy pow'rs from Judas Maccabeus (1747) was completely different, but full of vigorous bravura, showing that John Beard had a significant range and technical skill. Allan Clayton made the aria something of an heroic tour de force, with impressive passage-work.

The final role Handel wrote for Beard was perhaps the greatest, the title role in Jephtha (1752) from which we heard the lovely Waft her, angels, through the skies. A striking orchestra introduction led to a strong accompanied recitative with a perfect marriage of voice and orchestra in the aria. Allan Clayton sang with considered poise, rising to some power at key moments but also daring to sing quietly.

From 1753 came the fourth version of Thomas Arne's Alfred (a work which went through a remarkable number of versions and editions), in which John Beard sang the title role. We heard the overture which started in vigorous style, with plenty of horn, before an elegant slower section and a lively triple time ending. The aria From the dawn of early morning was vigorous with Allan Clayton being nicely carefree despite the taxing passage-work.

John Christopher Smith was the son of Handel's principal copyist and Smith involved himself in editing Handel's music after the composer's death and writing his own pieces. The Fairies was a stage adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream put on at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by David Garrick with music by JC Smith. Theseus's Hard how the hounds and horn was lively, with plenty of horn calls. Quite a swaggering piece, it was effective but not the most sophisticated of works.

Arne's opera Artaxerxes was in entirely a different category. Premiered in 1762, John Beard played Artabanes, the villain. In Thou, like the glorious sun Arne's writing for orchestra seemed richly busy but more big boned than Handel, and the solo was less bravura but notably stylish.

Allan Clayton had quite a low-key stage manner, as he did not try and do too much with the various arias but all were sung with a lively intelligence and a sparkle in the eyes. It was quite a taxing programme, 12 arias which took us from the young John Beard's lyric tenor voice to the maturer singing more dramatic works. Allan Clayton had just the right mixture of strength and fluidity for this music, encompassing the vigorous bravura and the long lyrical lines. His combination of technique and sensibility meant that I could have happily continued listening to him singing Handel for ever. He was finely supported by Ian Page and the orchestra of Classical Opera, who gave us some finely shaped orchestral playing with a lovely evenness of tone and a lively balance between strings and wind.

If you want to know more about John Beard, then I can highly recommend Neil Jenkins' biography of the singer (see my review) and in fact I spotted Jenkins in the audience at the concert.

The enthusiastic audience was treated to an encore, another work Handel wrote for John Beard, Happy pair from Alexander's Feast (1736). The good news is that they hope to make a disc of this repertoire next year. The concert is also being repeated on 12 May 2015 at the Newbury Festival.

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