Roderick Williams directs the OAE at Royal Festival Hall – Telemann, Bach, Handel [live BBC Radio 3 broadcast]

Cantata ‘Die Stille Nacht’ (Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus), TWV 1:364
Cantata No.82 ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV82
Cantata ‘Apollo e Dafne’, HWV122

Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Roderick Williams (baritone & director)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 20 October, 2020
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This was certainly a programme of two halves, one sacred, the other profane, but both dealing with resignation and acceptance, whether wearied or joyful. Without an audience in the Royal Festival Hall, many listeners to this broadcast at home will surely identify with the former, sitting out the ongoing pandemic with no clear end in sight.

The two sacred cantatas in the first half are both scored for solo voice alone with instrumental accompaniment, Telemann’s dwelling on Jesus’s anxious night of suffering on the Mount of Olives before his Crucifixion. Roderick Williams directed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in quietly thoughtful accounts, the gently rippling opening of ‘Die Stille Nacht’ bringing out its Bachian seriousness, and Williams singing with a raw tone. He traced the dramatic narrative of this work in the two succeeding arias with first a lithe, guileless joy and then a jaunty, more purposeful one, as the faithful believer contemplates the salvation wrought by Christ’s passion.

Taking up the theme of the aged Simeon’s ecstatic welcome of the baby Jesus as he is presented in the Temple at Jerusalem (recounted in St Luke’s Gospel), J. S. Bach’s well-loved Cantata No.82 is a private meditation expressing the soul’s contentment in the Saviour, and willingness to depart this life. The OAE’s softly blended textures, with Katharina Spreckelsen’s mellow rather than wailing oboe for the outer two arias, captured the mood well, as did Roderick Williams’s soothing execution of the vocal line, both increasing in vigour and intensity for the more driven final aria. But the flowing, lilting ‘Schlummert ein’ could have been more mystical and probing in its resigned contemplation of death, rather than sounding like a mere human lullaby.

Handel’s Italian cantata Apollo e Dafne – effectively a chamber opera for two – charts a very different, erotic, route to release and renunciation, as the god tries to seduce the chaste nymph Daphne after boasting of his heroic endeavours in ridding Greece of the monster Python. Daphne transforms herself, however, into a laurel tree rather than give in to Apollo’s advances. A robust rendition by the OAE of the first movement of the composer’s Concerto Grosso Opus 3/2 (supplied as a brief overture) led straight into the bravado and swagger of Williams’s appearance as Apollo, expressing overweening confidence. 

His performance remained urgent and persuasive – for instance as Apollo argues that Daphne should enjoy pleasure now whilst she has beauty, like a rose’s, which will fade – in dramatically apt contrast with Rowan Pierce’s calm, assured interpretation. She evinced telling fluster in her altercations with Apollo and a touch of fearful uncertainty or hesitation perhaps in ‘Come in ciel’ as she explains that her virtue will outlast that beauty and keep temptation at bay. The OAE provided vivid support, adjusting to the narrative shifts even in this simple plot, such as the accelerando and sudden halt as Daphne’s metamorphosis takes place just at the moment as Apollo grasps her. His sighing lament movingly rounded off this astute interpretation.

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