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Steven Devine [Photo by John Buckman at Magnatune]
21 Oct 2015

Bostridge Sings Handel

1985 must have been a good year for founding a musical ensemble, or festival or organisation, which would have longevity.

Bostridge Sings Handel

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Steven Devine [Photo by John Buckman at Magnatune]


This year the Wihan Quartet and the Philharmonia Quartet both celebrate thirty years of music-making, and 2015 is a similarly landmark year for both the Welsh Proms and Live Music Now.

This concert at St John’s Smith Square — which is serving as a ‘home for home’ for some of the Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras, ensembles and performers while the Queen Elizabeth Hall is refurbished — was the first of a season during which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment also reflects on thirty years of pioneering performances. A programme article notes that when a small group of period instrument-playing innovators formed the ensemble in 1985, ‘public enthusiasm for historically [in]formed performance was still relatively recent and the idea of a player-led period group revolutionary’. Since then, the debates about historically informed performance have been vigorous and at times contentious: ‘authenticity’ has been promoted as both the Holy Grail and a meaningless construct. What really matters, of course, is the sincerity of the music-making, the standards — technical and expressive achieved — and the pleasure derived, for performers and audiences alike.

The performers themselves have always been at the heart of the OAE’s vision and energy, and this season double bass player Cecelia Bruggemeyer and bassoonist Andrew Watts have curated a series of concerts in which players will direct and perform as soloists, and repertoire will comprise both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, reflecting the scholarship which has always informed the OAE’s work and a desire to experiment and tread new ground. So, concerts later in the season will see Vladimir Jurowski conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony and David Poutney bring Der Freischütz to the concert platform. And, while the programme on this occasion, featuring music by Handel and Telemann, may at first glance have seemed to be positioned firmly in the ‘old’ camp, tenor Ian Bostridge and director Steven Devine brought fresh, invigorating perspectives to the familiar.

The supple, warm-voiced horn-playing of Roger Montgomery and Martin Lawrence, and the suave, characterful phrasing of the OAE’s woodwind players (Frances Norbury and Catherine Latham (oboes), and Andrew Watts (bassoon)), during a selection of movements from Telemann’s Overture in F (TWV 55: F3) set the tone for this concert, in which the instrumental playing made one sit up and really listen, even during perennial favourites. The strings were not to be out-done: gentle up-bows in the ‘Sarabande’, of subtly varied pressure, were an eloquent foundation for the slightly withdrawn horns above. Margaret Faultless provided vigorous leadership in the ‘Badinerie’, while the expressively emphasised couplet-quavers of the ‘Réjouissance’ were followed by a beautiful sway in the Trio, evidence of director Steven Devine’s attention to detail allied with an innate grasp of the rhythmic pulse and form. With the horns and woodwind raised behind the strings, framed by the imposing pillar and red drapes of St. John’s, the mood combined the celebratory with the ceremonial — and, this was playing of the highest technical and expressive calibre.

‘Dass mein Erlöser lebt’ from Telemann’s Cantata TWV 1:873 is one of the composer’s best-known arias. Ian Bostridge imbued the aria, which speaks of the protagonist’s faith and conviction, with a gentle fluency, but surprised with a powerful crescendo through the repetition of the rising melodic line, ‘dass weiss ich ganz gewiss’ (of that I am quite sure), and made the voice retreat in the da capo repeat for the closing couplet, creating a confidential tone designed to draw the listener within the secure bounds of spiritual certainty. In ‘So stehet ein Berg Gottes’ from the passion-oratorio Der Tod Jesu Bostridge made telling use of his lower register, particulary in the minor-key central section, while the virtuosic horn playing and stylish string bowing, with lots of ‘air’ between strokes, conjured up the stormy lightning shower and surging floods depicted in the text.

This was an engaging opening, not least because of the superlative musicianship of the OAE’s two horn players but with Handel’s ‘Scherza infida’ (Laugh faithless one) from Ariodante, the performance shifted a gear upwards. Handel is the quintessential ‘man of the theatre’: every musical gesture is designed to ensnare the ear and eye; to surprise, alarm, convince. Singing from memory, Bostridge totally embodied the grief-stricken Ariodante, who has just been told (by his jealous rival, Polinesso) of his beloved Ginerva’s deception and betrayal. The opening line, ‘E vivo ancora?’ (Do I still live?), low and ponderous, seemed weighted with an anchor of heartache and disbelief, while above heart-beat murmurings were faintly sounded by the violins. Bostridge’s voice seemed to be almost a physical, tangible entity, one that could be bent and wrought, as it slid and drooped through the questioning vocal phrases: ‘Che fàro?/ Che mi dite, o affanni miei?’ (What shall I do? What do you say, my sorrows?). ‘Scherza infida in grembo al drudo’ (Laugh, faithless oone, in your lover’s arms) sank wearily, tinged with bitterness; with the da capo repeat, this line faded pathetically, conveying the protagonist’s embrace of death.

More energised instrumental quavers, and some lovely bassoon playing, in the B section suggested Ariodante’s wish to ‘break this vile deceit’; but, the effortlessness of the transition to the return of the opening sentiments, conveyed Ariodante’s slavery to his anguish. ‘Love sound th’alarm’ from Acis and Galatea shook us from such numbness. Muscular and powerful of voice, Bostridge sang with a sprightly energy, which at times seemed to push ahead of the OAE.

Handel’s five-movement Latin motet, Silete venti, was composed in London some time between 1724 and 1730, perhaps for one of his London opera singers, or even for a Roman patron during Handel’s return visit to Italy in 1729. Whatever the circumstances of the motet’s origins, much of its music is borrowed from earlier works but this does not diminish from the work’s lavish richness and invention. The OAE established the ‘grand’ scale of the work in the French-style overture in which the stately opening segued into a dynamic contrapuntal movement which created anticipation and excitement. Bostridge’s rhetorical entry dramatically silenced the busy instrumental dialogues — ‘Silete venti’ (Be silent you winds) — and imposingly took command, ordering the winds and trees to cease their murmuring, ‘Because my soul is resting in joy’. The tenor wonderfully balanced oratorical power with a fluidity of line in this accompanied recitative, supported by beautiful pulsing and undulating violin figures.

The following aria ambiguously blends notions of spiritual love with the sort of sensual intimation so beloved by the Italian madrigalists: ‘Quia totus vivo in te.’ (Because I live completely in you.) Bostridge’s appeals, ‘Veni, veni transige me’ (Come, transfix me), ached with sweetness and ardency, made more plangent still by the tinges of chromaticism in the string parts which gradually infiltrate the vocal line itself. In the central B section, the sparser instrumental textures and steady tread of the bass emphasised the nobility of the tenor’s conviction: ‘Si tu feris non sunt clades./ Tuae plagae sunt suaves.’ (If you strike there are no injuries, Your blows are sweet.)

After the animation of the short recitative which confirms the protagonist’s bliss and ‘supreme joy’, the aria ‘Date serta, date flores’ (Give garlands, give flowers) began with a self-possessed elegance, and graceful interplay between the tenor and instruments, which later blossomed to majesty: ‘Me coronent vestri honoris’ (Crown me with your honours). The banished winds were now called upon, along with the ‘blessed fortunate spirits’ to ‘Auras coeli fulgidas’ (Inhale heaven’s glorious atmosphere); the strings’ urgent semiquaver pairings and the tense, sustained notes of the oboe were an exciting presage of Bostridge’s florid vocal lines in which it seemed that the voice would out-race the wind itself. The concluding ‘Alleluia’ both cleansed and rejoiced, commencing with light transparency (upper strings, oboes and theorbo (David Miller)) and evolving with virtuosic luxuriousness. Here, supported by a sympathetic, pianissimo instrumental gigue, Bostridge demonstrated that the incisiveness of his dramatic grasp is matched by his technical mastery.

In the first half of the programme, Scherza infida’ had been preceded by Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor Op.3 No.5, in which the darkaffekt of the Largo was counterbalanced by the spaciousness of the Fuga and finely nuanced playing in the final movement, Allegro — in which unisons were just that and the precision with which the strings’ energetic rhythmic motif was articulated, with a light touch but sure presence, was highly impressive. The concert ended with a stunning performance of a selection from Handel’s Water Music : if one thought one knew this music, one was disabused by the graceful eloquence, rhythmic tightness and bite, urbane syncopated ease, lucidity of texture and compelling theatricality of the OAE’s playing. I was transported back to 1717, to the bank of the River Thames, and could imagine King George I’s joy and assurance, as from his royal barge he and the assembled dukes and duchesses listened as 50 musicians jauntily affirmed the potential of the power which rested on the monarch’s shoulders.

And after such wonderfully extrovert music by Handel, it seemed fitting for Bostridge to select an aria by Bach to conclude the evening, putting drama and ceremony to one side, and closing proceedings with more spiritual sentiments. The encore, ‘Du bist bei mir’ — which Bostridge had performed the previous week at the Wigmore Hall, in recital with Steven Isserlis and Julius Drake —was candour and serenity distilled.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Steven Devine, director, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Telemann: Selection from Overture in F TWV55:F3, ‘Dass mein Erlöser lebt’ from Cantata TWV1:873, ‘So stehet ein Berg Gottes’ from Der Tod Jesu TWV5:6; Handel: Concerto Grosso in D minor Op.3 No.5 HWV316, ‘Scherza infida’ from Ariodante, ‘Love sounds th’alarm’ from Acis and Galatea HW49, Silete Venti HWV242, Selection from Water Music Suite No.1 in F HWV348. St John’s Smith Square, London. Wednesday 14th October 2015.

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