fri 25/09/2020

Handel Remixed 2, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Handel Remixed 2, Barbican

Handel Remixed 2, Barbican

Hanel re-imagined at the Barbican

When I met the Nigerian rebel pop star Fela Kuti I asked him who was the greatest musician - he didn’t hesitate before replying George Frederic Handel. Kuti was wearing only a pair of red underpants at the time and smoking a massive spliff. His music has echoes of Handel, certainly in some keyboard lines, in all its solidity and moments of transcendence. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at Handel’s continuing  reach across the centuries and continents. Beethoven and Mozart are among many to have re- arranged Handel.

But how would a selection of contemporary composers (all of whom, pleasingly were in the hall) going to approach their task of re-intepretation? With Harry Christophers, one of the greatest modern Handelians conducting (only Paul McCreesh of the conductors I’ve seen recently seems to have quite the same empathy) and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields the composers had a superb vehicle for their Handelian experiments as was shown by his brisk, wonderfully fluid Arrival of the Queen of Sheba which began the evening. In the great counter-tenor debate I’m in the Andreas Scholl camp, but the nature of this diverting and entertaining evening was probably more suited to David Daniels, who seemed to be enjoying the challenge.

Michael Nyman has form at this kind of thing, making his name with his re-workings of Purcell and Mozart. Nyman, jackdaw-like, spied the shiniest melody from Xerxes "Ombra Mai Fu" and swopped on it, pushing it up front with a pleasingly efficient arrangement.  Simple, even shameless, but undeniably effective. It is, after all, a gorgeous tune. Afterwards, Nyman complained “They should have played it louder”.

Jocelyn Pook is probably best known for her rather dark and even perverse music she wrote for Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, but this was a whole new Pook, sunny, flamboyant, jam-packed with melodies (including a Tchaikovsky quote). The commission seemed to open creative doors for her, and it will be fascinating to see what’s next for her fertile imagination. Whereas Nyman economically uses one idea a piece, Pook had many, arguably too many, although the piece was difficult to judge as apparently this was only the backing track as David Daniels had said her vocal lines she had written for him were too difficult to sing.

The Scottish composer Craig Armstrong had the bright idea, having rejected Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane lyrics of using the lyrics from the pop hit “Don’t Leave me this Way” and Daniels singing “Without your love I cannot survive, without your tender kiss” threatened to tip over into out and out campness but, surprisingly, was one of the most moving moments of the evening. Of course, pop has a long tradition of counter-tenors – Jimmy Sommerville of the Communards who had a hit with this song, being one of the best, although the thing with the most effective pop songs, ( “mini symphonies for the kids” as the great pop producer Phil Spector called them) is their ferocious economy and this could been edited down slightly for maximum impact.

Nico Muhly, the young American composer, had a couple of goes – the first reminiscent of John Adams and the second more introspective and moody, but it was difficult to get much sense of his own personality. But there was more than enough there to make one want to hear more of him.

The other composer to doff his cap to the Master was John Taverner whose evocative piece with long melodic lines sounded like the long breaths of some mythical underwater beast. The Taverner piece, scored for oboe and strings and counter-tenor didn’t fit in with the more diverting, entertaining nature of most of the rest of the evening but all the composers seemed to refract different aspects of Handel, this reflecting the composer’s more meditative, spiritual side.  The other Handel pieces in the programme made you realise both that Handel is the complete composer and that the most effective re-mixer of Handel was the composer himself – never averse himself to some creative recycling when the occasion demanded it.

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