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S & H Concert Review

Handel, ‘Acis and Galatea’, Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, dir. Nicholas Cleobury; Sophie Daneman, Paul Agnew, James Gilchrist, Alan Ewing: English Voices. St. John’s Smith Square, June 12th 2004 (ME)

 


I am not quite sure how Acis fits into the Festival’s theme of ‘Behind the Mask,’ unless it is the mask of the Pastoral, but no matter – this was the composer’s most popular work during his lifetime, and it has never been out of the repertoire. Ivor Bolton was to have conducted on this occasion, but he was ill and so Nicholas Cleobury stepped in at short notice to direct a mostly lively, enjoyable performance in which the best of the singing definitely came from the left – that is, the relatively small parts of Damon and Polyphemus. Cleobury’s direction was understandably a little muted, and it took the orchestra some time to settle down: the same was true of the chorus, with its apt name – no voices could sound more English, in both the most and least flattering senses, in that the purity and crystalline diction of the Oxbridge sound (the group was originally formed from Cambridge choral scholars who wanted to stay together) is blended with a quality for which an appropriate word does not really exist, the best approximation being ‘snotty.’

Of course, the choral music here does tend towards the complacent: whilst the protagonists agonize over their passions and neglect their rural tasks, those smoothies in the chorus assure us that all is well even if poor old Acis has had his head caved in and subsequently become a piddling brook – but hey! all’s well, at least bone-dry Sicily will get a bit of irrigation – what a way to cool one’s passions. Our hero was sung by the eminent Paul Agnew, a singer I very much admire but who does not, or at least did not on this occasion, have the vocal agility or sheer heft for this quite taxing role. ‘Love in her Eyes’ is a genuinely challenging piece, and even though Cleobury gave him plenty of help by maintaining a gentle rather than tortuous pace, Agnew struggled with the more florid parts of the music. ‘Love Sounds Th’Alarm’ fared better, perhaps because it’s not so taxing even though it looks on paper as though it would be. Nevertheless, this singer always presents the music with devoted skill, perfect diction and a tone so sweet that his shepherd still commands attention, even though on this occasion I think that a shepherdess might well have been tempted to go for old Polyphemus in the end.

Alan Ewing has all you need for the role of the Handelian buffo bass, and he knows it: his Polyphemus was just the right side of blustering, and you actually had some sympathy for those cack-handed attempts at flattery in which each simile is somehow not quite right, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ being the perfect example. ‘I rage’ was positively thunderous – quite a performance. James Gilchrist’s Damon was equally commanding, his rational advice offered to the hapless hero in the sweetest tones – ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ was beautifully sung, providing an object lesson in the genuine Handelian tenor style as it has been developed over the past two decades.

Sophie Daneman has been highly praised and she is an experienced Galatea, but on this occasion I found her disappointing. There are some things which some critics and other listeners can overlook in a singer (for example, the very prominent baritone who has, to my ears, a wide, wobbling vibrato, the existence of which is categorically denied by some) and in this case, this lovely soprano has, to my ears, an irritating lisp which affects her delivery – maybe she has just had some recent dental work, however. Her stage presence is perfect – she communicates with an audience in such an open, friendly way and she presents the music with such commitment that I hate to carp about this one point, but it is relevant to me since it prevents her singing from being ideal. ‘Hush, Ye Pretty warbling Quire’ was sung with directness, although I think ‘warbling’ should have a fluid trill rather than a break, and ‘Heart, the seat of soft Delight’ was well performed but affected by the vocal production, sounding nasal when it ought to sound sweet.

Acis is always worth hearing, even if some of the performers are not at their best: the characters may come from the rigidly conventional world of the Pastoral, their fates may be sad, but they still live and breathe in our sympathies thanks to Handel’s glorious music.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 


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