Handel: Heaven and Harmony
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir
City Recital Hall, Angel Place
25 February 2015
The programmes of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra continually aim to present unfamiliar music or new approaches to well-trodden paths and they also regularly introduce new faces. For their Heaven and Harmony concert all the music was by Handel, but it explored works which are not often performed in Sydney. The concert also introduced two singers who regularly perform together overseas but who have not been heard previously in Australia.
This was the orchestra’s first concert of the year and it opened appropriately with the well-known sinfonia The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon. This received a sprightly performance with some enjoyable oboe playing from Adam Masters and Owen Watkins. As always, the orchestra displayed its collective discipline and energy.
The second work on the programme introduced the Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães in the short, rarely-heard secular cantata Look down harmonious Saint which consists of a single aria with an introductory recitative. Guimarães has a clear, focused sound which is well suited to Handel. He pointed the text dramatically and his coloratura was clean but perhaps overly detached.
The programme continued with part of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, written for the opening concert of his 1739-40 season on 22 November (St Cecilia’s Day). It was a mysterious decision to break the work with an interval after the first four movements and then to continue with the remaining six movements after the interval, especially in a programme as short as this one.
The Ode introduced the Brandenburg Choir, consisting of 19 fine singers who produce a homogeneous, well-blended sound with precise attack and reliable unanimity. Each of the voice parts is well-integrated and the result is a well-balanced sound, though a slightly stronger tenor section would be ideal.
The fourth movement of the Ode, What passion cannot music raise and quell, started with some fine solo cello playing by Jamie Hey. This aria also introduced the Argentine soprano Mariana Flores. She produced a sturdy, well-projected, though sometimes rather incisive sound. Her ornamentation and coloratura were clean and accurate but she had a tendency to swell on individual notes which was at the expense of delivering longer lines and delicacy of phrasing.
In another obscure programming decision, the scheduled part of the concert did not conclude with the stirring last movement of the Ode, with its rousing chorus and trumpets and drums. Instead, this was followed by the duet Tra amplessi innocenti which is just the final movement from another of Handel’s secular cantatas, Cecilia, volgi un sguardo. This attractive music was given a buoyant performance with the lightness of touch appropriate to its pastoral nature.
As an encore we were given the duet As steals the morn from the third part of Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Pensiero ed il Moderato. This is quintessential Handel at his timeless best and it was attractively performed, though perhaps without fully evoking the hushed tranquillity inherent in the piece.
It is always interesting to hear musicians from overseas, but one wonders about importing overseas singers when there are local singers who could have produced musical results that were at least as satisfying. Nevertheless, the ABO and its chorus are superb groups, and their concerts are always enjoyable. This was certainly no exception. It was a delightful programme of Handel rarities which was very well performed.
A special word of praise must go to the comprehensive programme notes by Lynne Murray which provided excellent background and context for all the music performed. Several more concerts of the same programme are being given in Sydney until 6 March and then in Melbourne on 7 and 8 March.
Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©
Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London. He is an avid attender of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music. He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel. He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.