Water Music

Les Paladins – Suite
Semele – Where’er you walk
Jephtha – Waft her, angels; His mighty arm
Dardanus – Chaconne; Prélude and Air, Lieux funestes; Recitative and Ariette, Où suis-je … Hâtons-nous, courons à la gloire
Water Music – Suite in F

John Mark Ainsley (tenor)

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 2 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under its conductor Nicholas McGegan, making its UK debut, offset the often outlandish rhythms and scoring of Rameau’s music by counterpointing it with some of Handel’s finest if less ornate constructions. By contrast, the similarities between the two composers (including their shared love of both Italian and earlier French models) were reinforced by the astonishingly precise and rhythmically incisive performances, whereby the inherently ‘baroque’ was subordinated to a powerful forward momentum, leaving the colourful orchestration, particularly in the Rameau, to impart the wonderful flavour of the language.

Two suites; two sets of vocal pieces. Rameau’s suite comprises dances drawn from his 1760 comédie-lyrique “Les Paladins”. So overwhelming was the effect of this performance that the audience erupted into applause after the ‘Ouverture’. McGegan’s bubbly conducting style drew a few laughs as well, but it certainly delivered the goods – the wonderful pizzicato sections in the ‘Entrée très gaye des troubadours’, the syncopated ‘Entrée des Chinois’, the graceful ‘Air pour les pagodes’ and the ‘Contredanses’ (enhanced by the inclusion of a tambourine) were just some of the highlights, the performances abounding in rich colours, superb dynamic shading and crisp rhythms.

By way of contrast were three of Handel’s most beautiful arias, drawn from the oratorios “Semele” and “Jephtha”. “Where’er you walk” is long a favourite, and was followed by the more muted colours and beautiful soaring vocal line of “Waft her, angels” and the incredible vocal pyrotechnics of “His mighty arm”.

The delightful ‘Chaconne’ from Rameau’s opera “Dardanus” gave each section of the orchestra to show off their considerable abilities; particularly impressive were the woodwinds. John Mark Ainsley then returned to perform two arias from the same opera, their higher tessiturae and quasi-recitative vocal line contrasting sharply with Handel’s far more Italianate da capo forms. These were sensitively drawn performances, full of depth and subtlety (Ainsley has recorded the role of Dardanus for Archiv Produktion with Minkowski), though perhaps not as immediately captivating as the preceding Handel.

It was left to the final suite of the evening, the F major from Handel’s Water Music, to enliven proceedings – which, for me at any rate, it didn’t. The performances were impeccable to a fault. And yet … the full-blooded accounts by Pinnock, Niquet, et al with multiple bassoons and oboes are preferable. This was all just a little too polite, despite the often brusque horns. A case where downsizing definitely isn’t authentic – especially not in the Albert Hall.

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