Handel in Italy at Bath Abbey

HANDEL in Italy was the final concert in this year’s Bath Bachfest, the successor to the city’s famous Bach Festival, and organised under the aegis of its long established Mozartfest. There were five concerts in this year’s series, featuring music not just by J.S. Bach but from the wider baroque period – Corelli, Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau and of course Handel.

As a young man of twenty-one, George Frederick Handel travelled to Italy where he acquired a high reputation as both performer, particularly on the organ and the harpsichord, and composer. Italy at the time led the world in the art of music and it was there that the young Handel was to become strongly influenced by, amongst others, the works of Corelli. It was fitting therefore that the evening’s concert should have opened with one of Corelli’s Twelve Concerti Grossi Opus 6, published in 1714 and models for Handel’s own Opus 6, written some years later in London.

Corelli’s Number 4 in D major was beautifully performed by the Gabrieli Players, with some dazzling interplay between the two solo violins and some equally fine attention being given to dynamics – something which Corelli himself would have left to the performers. Four of the five movements were fairly lively in nature but even in the resonant acoustic of Bath Abbey everything came across with crystal clarity, the supporting ripieno strings and continuo providing a constantly changing accompaniment to the animated solo violins. From where I was sitting I was fortunate to have a really good view of the theorbo or bass lute, the look of which, as well the sound of course, added a touch of exotic colour to the ensemble. The whole set the scene quite beautifully for what was to come.

Handel’s Donna, che in ciel (HWV 233) is one of two Italian sacred cantatas written at that time and gives thanks the Virgin Mary for protecting Rome during the earthquake of 1703. Written for solo soprano, chorus (in the last movement) and orchestra, it was first performed in February 1708. Soloist Gillian Webster was just glorious – a delight to watch as well as to listen to; her voice in the opening recitative seemed to float in the air before she burst into the first aria “Both the earth and mankind shook with fear of that first sin”. We too shook, though not with fear, but at the sheer magnificence of the performance. The accompanied recitative that followed and the subsequent aria were, for me, among the highlights of the entire evening, every single word given just the right nuance, while the theorbo and, in the adagio aria, the cello and harpsichord as well, were simply lovely to listen to as they weaved in and out of the serene vocal line.

More drama was to follow, with “the path shifting under our wandering feet” being effectively mirrored in the accompanying orchestral writing before the soloist launched into her “black flames of everlasting anger” with a fiery display of dazzling melisma. Although it is not until the final movement of the cantata that we are introduced to the wonderful Gabrieli Consort, it is well worth the wait. They, together with the soloist, bring the cantata to its triumphant, indeed heavenly, conclusion.

The final work of the evening was Dixit Dominus (HWV 232), an extended setting for soloists, chorus, strings and continuo of Psalm 110, and, of course, one of Handel’s better known choral works. The work was completed in 1707 and given its first performance the same year – the year before Donna, che in ciel. Although most often performed today by amateur choral societies, the work was written for professionals, and it is not hard to see or hear why. It is not just that the work needs voices of wide vocal range and considerable stamina, but it also requires singers of the calibre of the Gabrieli Consort before one can really hear Handel’s demanding melismatic writing the way it was originally intended.

For sheer flamboyance, the opening movement takes some beating and the Consort under the masterly control of their director Paul McCreesh clearly relished every moment. David Allsopp’s sparkling counter-tenor voice did full justice to the aria “Virgam virtutis” that followed, after which Gillian Webster returned to sing “Tecum principium” which she did with what appeared to be an effortless warmth. In the choruses that followed, the Consort sang with perfect control and great purity while the Players accompanied with considerable sensitivity – constantly interesting but never overpowering. The ending of the chorus “Judicabit in nationibus” was particularly moving – ensemble music at its very best.

The duet “De Torrente in via bibet” for two sopranos and male voice chorus is my personal favourite from Dixit Dominus, and in this performance, Susan Hemington Jones and Ruth Provost were sublime, their long, sinuous cantabile lines soaring to the very roof of the Abbey. And as for the final “Gloria”, well it was indeed glorious, the Consort singing with steely precision and evident joy. Magnificent.


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