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Commentary

Dame Emma Kirkby [Photo courtesy of London Handel Festival]
03 Oct 2011

The Inaugural Cambridge Handel Festival: a rosy dawn?

The haughty beauties that are the ancient colleges of Cambridge were definitely feeling the heat this past weekend, and not even the cooling streams of the Cam and its tributaries could assuage the heat of an Indian summer in the Fens of Eastern England.

The Inaugural Cambridge Handel Festival: a rosy dawn?

By Sue Loder

Above: Dame Emma Kirkby [Photo courtesy of London Handel Festival]

 

Luckily, there was an alternative to the sweltering pavements and swirling crowds of Freshers Week: the inaugural Cambridge Handel Festival announced its arrival on the period music scene with a weekend of the coolest venues and the most exciting music-making. There is already a well-established Handel “hard core” living in and around the city — the Cambridge Handel Opera Group is well regarded — but it was something of an act of faith on the part of the organisers (Cambridge Early Music) to devote an entire weekend to all things Handelian. It was only towards the end of the two days, after a scintillating final concert of the Violin Sonatas by Adrian Butterfield, that it became obvious that the Festival had not only been an artistic success but had also, most importantly, just about broken-even financially. In this age of straitened budgets, this is no mean feat.

London_Handel_Players-NCEM.gifLondon Handel Players [Photo courtesy of NCEM]

The Festival was an innovative mix of events: a guided walk, talks by Handel experts, specific church services with a Handelian slant, an organ recital by the hugely talented Mark Williams in the chastely-elegant confines of Wren’s Pembroke College Chapel, and both instrumental and vocal concerts which delighted both enthusiasts and casual ticket-buyers alike. The backbone of the Festival was, one would have to say, Laurence Cummings and his London Handel Players who featured not only the deeply satisfying playing of both Adrian Butterfield (violin) and Rachel Brown (flute/recorder) but also accompanied the evergreen Emma Kirkby with great finesse and sympathetic musicianship. This latter concert highlighted arias written for soprano Cecilia Young (later Mrs Arne) by her husband, Lampe and Handel himself and we were treated to some songs rarely heard before: “Pretty Warblers” and “By the rushy-fringed bank” were delightful curiosities, delightfully sung.

Speaking with various other visitors to this Festival it was obvious that the variety of events had been a success, as had been the many interesting and unusual venues. There was a well-produced and informative programme book which both enlightened the newcomer but also informed the confirmed Handelian — for instance, the Fitzwilliam Museum in the heart of the city keeps some manuscript music by the great man which was put on show (with explanatory notes) especially to coincide with the weekend’s events. One can only hope that this most lovely of cities will once again feature the works of Handel and his contemporaries in another such festival: the foundations have certainly been well-laid.

Sue Loder

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