Handel Remixed

Handel overtures and arias interspersed with new works by Nico Muhly, John Tavener, Michael Nyman, Craig Armstrong and Jocelyn Pook

David Daniels (countertenor)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 19 September, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

What a daunting task, for a composer to be commissioned to write a homage to, or, as described in the printed programme, a reimagining of, Handel, one of the giants of music who can invest the smallest compositional gesture with more life-enhancing humour, tragedy, sensuality, delight and profundity than you would have thought humanly possible. Anyway, such was the idea behind “Handel Remixed”, a novel take on the Handel 250th-anniversary celebrations to launch the Barbican Centre’s “Great Performers” series for 2009-10, with the variable results superbly championed by the great countertenor David Daniels.The five contemporary composers are, with the exception of Tavener, well known for their film music. The American Nico Muhly (born 1981), a big cheese on the New York music scene, had two offerings – his vocalise on ’Al lampo dell’armi’ (from “Julius Caesar”) presented ardent, Tippett-like florid declamation served on a bed of minimalist accompaniment. Attractive and lively, it had more going for it than his “Drones on ’Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless’” (from “Saul”), which slowed down the aria’s aching suspensions and melody to the point of stasis.

John Tavener’s “Little Reliquary for GFH” played with a memory of an aria from “Solomon”, but using the ‘Pie Jesu’ words from the Requiem text. A typical chip off the much-quarried Tavener block, the slow, heaving, guileless formula that delights his fans and reduces others to narcolepsy at least demonstrated that Tavener’s music needs time, and plenty of it, to make its accumulative point. Perhaps there is a ‘Big Reliquary’ waiting in the wings…

Michael Nyman’s take on ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from “Serse”) was much more upbeat. A very grand, even portentous, baroque-style opening with shades of a chugging ‘Eleanor Rigby’, it had the famous ‘Largo’, more or less intact and sinuously sung by Daniels, sailing serenely above the louring, busy accompaniment. Probably the longest piece in the programme was Themes and Variations by Craig Armstrong (born 1959), which stretched a bit of the ‘Adagio e staccato’ movement from Water Music into an anguished, easy-listening fest of distracted, trembling, slowly shifting harmonies, with Daniels keening the words from the pop song ‘Don’t leave me this way’. Daniels’s perfectly controlled long phrased, with the extraordinarily inward passion and contained urgency that makes his singing so magnetic, more than justified the waywardness, hugely attractive though it was, of Armstrong’s music, but it was a bit like revisiting Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The last homage was “Sing, sing, music was given” by Jocelyn Pook (born 1960), an orchestral piece based on two chord sequences from ‘Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless’ but puzzlingly having more to do with the ‘Pas de deux’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Interspersed with all this were arias from “Radamisto” and “Rodelinda” – the wonderful ‘Dove sei’, meltingly sung by Daniels, who was on heroic form for an incandescent ‘Vivi, tiranno’ – and overtures from “Solomon”, “Serse” and “Saul”. Daniels dealt magnificently with all the ways the contemporary composers exploited his remarkable artistry, but it was when he could let go of the music stand and the score that his extraordinary and subtle gifts soared.

Harry Christophers, with his fussy, milking conducting style, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, who opened with a scorcher of an ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’, adapted well to the baroque and baroque/contemporary needs of the music. Daniels’s encore, the original ‘Ombra mai fu’ in all its poised, centred glory, was a bit of a poke in the eye for Nyman and the others, and called to mind the image of pygmies larking around on the shoulders of a titan.

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