fri 25/09/2020

Handel Remixed, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Handel Remixed, Barbican

Handel Remixed, Barbican

Messing about with Handel at the Barbican

Are you allowed to like both Andreas Scholl and David Daniels? I've always felt slightly guilty over this one - it feels somewhat indecent to listen ruthlessly to Scholl for some pieces, and drop him like a spurned lover for Daniels when the mood takes you. Tonight, though, was definitely a Daniels night: bits and bobs from Handel's operas and oratorios, and some modern takes on the great man. It was cabaret-goes-slightly-baroque, with Harry Christophers leading a sparkling Academy of St Martin in the Fields with plenty of zing, just a whiff of campery, and the odd cheeky smile from composer and performer alike.

The brief was simple: take a piece of Handel and do something to it. Purists, I hear you gasp in horror. You might want to take the first link out of here and brush up on your baroque gesture.

Still here? Then you will be pleased to know that there was plenty to interest and enjoy. The American Nico Muhly wrote two pieces: Vocalise on "Al lampo dell'armi", based on the aria from Giulio Cesare, was a nervous, pulsating train journey of an aria, with plenty of passagework for Daniels that we couldn't always hear over the orchestra. Drones on "Oh Lord, whose Mercies Numberless" took the beautiful aria from Saul and stretched the accompaniment, the melody suspended above subtly shifting harmonies from the orchestra, a bit like Knut Nystedt did in Immortal Bach.

John Tavener offered a typically glass-clear piece, based on the farewell of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the oratorio of the same name. We got brooding string chords, a rather nice oboe line and a simple "Pie Jesu" melody from Daniels. It was all rather pleasant, and I felt I wanted a bit more by the end, which I don't always with Tavener. Jocelyn Pook's Sing, Sing, Music was Given, on the other hand, could have been rather shorter without us missing out on too much. A sort of "Handel meets Jane Austen", it was inoffensive, a little twee, and not particularly Handelly at all - with a whopping great quote from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, the significance of which I must have missed.

Craig Armstrong's Themes and Variations on Adagio e staccato (Water Music) seemed to present the biggest challenge to the orchestra, with a bit of uncertainty in the ensemble here and there. Having chosen an instrumental work for his aria, Armstrong needed words for his piece, and got them (where else?) from the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes song Don't Leave Me This Way. It was odd but effective, and pleasingly reflective of the practice many musicians had in Handel's day of stealing his melodies and re-hashing them in their ballad operas. It seems nothing has changed.

Michael Nyman had a bit of fun with "Ombra mai fù". Forget Handel in the Strand, this was Handel on the high seas: a rollicking rip-snorter of an arrangement (little more), where the tune hit you like a blast of sea air. The addition of a piano conjured up instant Beecham, but sadly no trombones to go with it.

In between we got unadulterated Handel; the master showing us all how it should be done in some overtures and arias. Daniels was at his most persuasive here too. Would the new works have stood up without chunks of Handel to prop them up? Not all of them, but that didn't stop me enjoying the evening. The orchestra and Daniels made it work. I'll renew my affair with Scholl a little later on.

More Handel at the Barbican on October 25. Les Arts Florissants present Susanna.

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