Friday 3 September 2021

Quite an occasion: Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts early Handel and Bach for his 60th appearance at the BBC Proms

Handel: Dixit Dominus - Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner - BBC Proms (Photo Chris  Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Handel: Dixit Dominus - Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner - BBC Proms
(Photo Chris  Chris Christodoulou/BBC)

Handel, Bach; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Ann Hallenberg, Sir John Eliot Gardiner; BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Dazzling chorus work, superb team musicianship and the largest choir we've heard live for months

Sir John Eliot Gardiner first conducted Handel's Dixit Dominus at the BBC Proms in 1974, a date when many of the singers in his current Monteverdi Choir were almost certainly not born. He returned to the Royal Albert Hall for his his 60th appearance at the BBC Proms on Wednesday 1 September 2021 for a programme which combined Handel's Dixit Dominus with two other works from the same period, Handel's motet Donne che in ciel, with mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, and Bach's first surviving church cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.  We had quite a large ensemble of performers, 27 members of the English Baroque Soloists led by Kati Debretzeni, and 30 members of the Monteverdi Choir. Perhaps one of the largest choirs we've heard for quite some time, which only went to make the occasion even more special.

Handel wrote Donna, che in ciel in 1707 or 1708. It is an occasional work, for mezzo-soprano, chorus (in the final movement only) and orchestra, and is surprisingly large scale, consisting of an introduction followed by four arias with linking recitative (including one accompagnato). Setting an Italian text, it seems to have been written for the 'Anniversary of the deliverance of Rome from the earthquake on the day of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin'. The earthquake was in 1703, and Handel's work seems to have been intended for one of the anniversary events. 

It is an impressive piece, though one which perhaps lacks the energy and immediacy of Handel's Dixit Dominus which was written around the same time. Throughout his life, Handel remained true to the Lutheran faith of his youth and despite considerable success in Italy in the years 1706 to 1710, Handel did not convert to Roman Catholicism to facilitate getting a post in Italy (unlike his younger German contemporary Hasse who did convert). So perhaps the subject matter, essentially a 30 minute hymn to the Virgin, did not quite appeal. Even the text of the accompanied recitative avoids going into too much detail about the earthquake and concentrates on 'welcome signs' from heaven.

The work received a consummate performance from Ann Hallenberg, as she moved from vividly busy passagework to touching moments just for voice and continuo. The third aria, 'Rise, then, black flames of eternal fury', featured a striking opening with the voice against unison strings, whilst the final aria, rather than being triumphant, was gentle and touching with Handel interweaving soloist and choir in an intriguing way.

Christ lag in Todes Banden seems to be Bach's earliest surviving church cantata, dating from very early in his career. Whilst in 1707, Handel was making a major name for himself in Italy with some very distinguished aristocratic patrons and cardinals, Bach was still developing his craft in a relatively lowly position only some 20 miles from his birth place. Most of Bach's cantatas date from his period in Leipzig, when he developed quite a fixed, almost stylised structure for them, but his early ones show greater freedom. 

The version of the cantata that survives is the one Bach re-used when he was performing it in Leipzig in the 1720s. Commentators still disagree over quite what forces Bach might have used, and whether the solo numbers are for soloists or for the choir. Probably, Bach would never have imagined having the resources to perform it with choir of 30, nor of having sufficient high-calibre singers to enable him to use all the voices on a line in the solo passages, but that is what John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir did and the result was something of a triumph for the quality of the musical performance from the singers and players. 

The opening chorus was neat and light, with articulation and accent bringing drama. The soprano/alto duet seemed to have all the time in the world, with all the singers relishing the suspensions, whereas the tenor aria was vigorous and strong with notable articulation. The second chorus (verse 4) was fast, but with terrific attention to the words, then the bass solo slowly unfolded with a fine sense of line, whereas the soprano/tenor duet was light yet articulated, with the final chorale concluding in strong fashion.

After the interval we had Handel's Dixit Dominus, written in early 1707 not long after Handel's arrival in Rome. But it still remains unclear for what occasion he wrote the work. Dixit Dominus is a psalm used at vespers so Handel's setting may have been written for a private vespers service for one of his patrons, or for the rather grander services for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at the Carmelite Order's Roman Church. 

For this performance the soloists were taken from the choir, Julia Doyle and Emily Owen (soprano), Behtany Horak-Hallett (alto), Graham Neal and Peter Davoren (tenor), and Dingle Yandell (bass), so that the solos in the ensemble numbers seemed to arise out of the choir.

It remains a dazzling work, though Handel would write more sophisticated sacred works, and the opening movement was full of engaging bounce and clear enjoyment from the singers. John Eliot Gardiner encouraged such strong articulation and accent from the choir that there were moments where the music felt particularly fierce. It did, however, ensure that the faster passages were brilliantly clear even in the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Bethany Horak-Hallett sang the also solo with serious intent and lovely even tone, whilst Julia Doyle was plangently affecting in the soprano solo. The succeeding sequence of choruses were all strongly articulated, with some dazzling cascades of roulades in 'Tu es sacerdos', whilst the soloists in 'Dominus a dextris tuis' all relished the suspensions, though there seemed a tendency to push the tone somewhat. But all that changed when we got to 'De torrente' as Julia Doyle and Emily Owen made time stand still with their two clear, expressive voices and seemingly all the time in the world. The final chorus brought things to a virtuosic dancing close. 

The chorus were supported wonderfully by the players of the English Baroque Soloists, matching them in engagement, enjoyment and intensity. This was a real team effort and there was some dazzling music making. Whilst I understood the need for careful attention to accent and articulation, there were times however when I wished the performance had been a little more relaxed and less intense.

The audience response was strong and we were treated to an encore, Julia Doyle and Emily Owen made time stand still again!

The concert is available on BBC Sounds, and will be broadcast on BBC 4 on Sunday 5 September 2021.

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