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CD Review: Handel (Maybe) Sonatas

The Brook Street Band: Rachel Harris, Tally Theo, Farran Scott, Carolyn Gibley


Handel: Sonatas For Violin And Basso Continuo
The Brook Street Band
Avie AV 2387

By Andrew J. Sammut

Handel’s violin sonatas tell stories, encompass lyricism, counterpoint and rhythmic dance, move through a variety of affects, and showcase the musicians’ virtuosity and expressiveness. Those are just the ones actually written by Handel!

As cellist Tatty Theo explains in the liner notes for this release, only four of these nine sonatas for violin and continuo can be definitively attributed to the master through an extant autograph score. Authorship aside, all of these sonatas are at the very least charming, often clever, and always beautiful. The Brook Street Band has seen fit to include all of the sonatas in their recording. The UK-based ensemble has a long, well-reviewed discography of Handel’s chamber works as well music by Bach and others under its belt, so this is a welcome addition to the catalog.

Harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley, violinist Rachel Harris, and cellist Theo turn out uniformly gutsy performances regardless of the works’ pedigree. Tempos are brisk and attacks are clearly delineated, with a steady beat and an overall sense of joy and kineticism. The second movement Allegro of HWV 361, one of those great moments where Handel seems to fade in and out of fugal style, turns into a spirited workout as well as a seamless narrative for the ensemble. The continuo’s light sighs in HWV 359a’s opening Grave produce an orchestral effect, and violin passagi lock in with bass lines in the following Allegro for more contrapuntal athletics. Even listeners who might dismiss some pieces as inferior to Handel’s work will find the band convincing on its own terms: HWV 372’s third movement Largo gets really sad, really fast, for some instantaneous pathos that is very well acted here.

More than merely doubling the harpsichord’s bass lines, Theo’s cello adds color, texture, and dynamics. It is a sensitive partner in the plaintive Affetuoso starting out HWV 371, a driving, drum-like commentator spurring the insistent, six-note theme in Allegro second movement of HWV 364a, and a miniature string section behind the violin’s double-stops for the downright fun second movement Allegro of HWV 372.

Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner c. 1726-28

Gibley’s harpsichord is a prime example of what makes this instrument so unique: She fills in the harmonies of the concluding Allegro of HWV 359a not just under the lead but also around it, making chords and cadences an atmosphere as well as a source of movement. Her inner decorations and turnarounds in the second movement Allegro of HWV 361 reinforce the sense of spontaneity present throughout this program. Warm acoustics in The Great Barn at Oxnead Hall in Norfolk, England, and smooth sound engineering by producer Simon Fox-Gál let the listener appreciate all of these details as well as the overall musical picture.

Of course, these are violin sonatas, so Harris is upfront and center. She sails on the typically Italianate flair of HWV 368’s first movement Allegro. HWV 373’s opening Adagio is a sincerely tender song in her hands, and she adds a catchy lilt to the second movement Allegro HWV 370. HWV 368’s second movement Allegro is less of a narrative and more of a display piece (at times akin to some of Corelli’s music), with Harris sporting some flashy sequences and close imitations as well as a climactic ascent and harmonically twisting 32nd notes, all while the cello nips closely behind her. Her ornamentation is tasteful but sticks close to the composers’ music; Harris’s natural tone colors are more than enough to provide ample decoration and variety even to “second-rate” works.

This disc is the best excuse possible to forego questions of compositional authenticity and concentrate on sheer music making. Cliche, perhaps, but in this case it thankfully provides more music to hear from this ensemble.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and traditional jazz for Early Music America, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, All About Jazz, and his own blog. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Handel’s Messiah Still Reigns In Dublin

Proinnsías Ó Duinn has conducted Dublin’s annual ‘Messiah’ commemoration since 1992.
(Photo by Mark Taylor)


By Tim Diovanni

DUBLIN — Each Christmas season, churches, universities, choirs, and high schools across the United States perform Handel’s Messiah. You’re practically guaranteed to hear it at least once on the radio, in a concert hall, in a mall, in a church, on the news, or in a grocery store.

The situation is remarkably similar in Ireland: Musicians throughout the island produce the oratorio for audiences who ritually congregate to witness it.

An 1884 drawing of Fishamble Street, with Mr. Neale’s Music Hall – site of the ‘Messiah’ premiere – the third building from right.

Its tremendous popularity in this country can, in part, be attributed to its premiere, which occurred in Dublin — the nation’s capital — on April 13, 1742. On that date, more than 700 people squeezed into Mr. Neale’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street, a venue that could comfortably fit 600. Proceeds from ticket sales, totaling almost 400 pounds, were distributed to the city’s three largest charities — the Society for Relieving Prisoners, Mercer’s Hospital on Stephen’s Street, and the Charitable Infirmary on Inns Quay — which received 127 pounds each, a significant sum at the time.

Each year on April 13, Our Lady’s Choral Society and the Dublin Handelian Orchestra commemorate the premiere with an hour-long Messiah on Fishamble Street in front of the spot where the Music Hall once stood. Proinnsías Ó Duinn has conducted this concert — aptly entitled “Messiah on the Street”  — since 1992, the 250th anniversary of the premiere. Dublin City Council sponsors the event, which draws a crowd that fills much of the street.

A video of the “Messiah on the Street” event in 2007 from RTÉ News shows two women flipping through a score, a baby boy gleefully smiling, and listeners and chorus members — prompted by Ó Duinn — throwing their hands in the air on the word “Hallelujah” during the famous ebullient chorus.

“It’s wonderful to see a number of young people and children at the event and in rapt attention, perhaps fascinated by the orchestra, the choir, or the music,” says Paul Kenny, a bass in the chorus who suggested the commemoration to Ó Duinn in 1991. “It is a privilege to be part of a wonderful group of friends who know the work so intimately, who love singing Handel’s glorious music and the sacred text compiled by Charles Jennens, and to bring that uplifting annual celebration to the people of Dublin and the world.”

Not everyone in Dublin, however, has held such a positive view on Messiah. In an article published in The Irish Times in 2000 under the headline “Oh God, not another Messiah,” Robin Hilliard, a chorister and organist, proposed a moratorium on the complete oratorio during the holiday season because it had become a “stuck record” that excluded “equally enjoyable works.”

As Hilliard wittily lamented: “[I]t’s the Christmas season and it’s marked by the galloping apathy of every chorister and choristrette, choirmaster and mistress, organist, leaden violinist and conductor, in his or her presentation of Handel’s sine qua non to a public which has heard it all before.”

Organizations could “give other composers and music a look-in,” Hilliard wrote, programming Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers, which are appropriate for the holiday.

Early music ensembles and symphony orchestras, however, would probably never remove Messiah from their schedules because of its monolithic popularity. The oratorio helps to fund their seasons, allowing them to promote and produce other works, which often result in financial losses. A chef wouldn’t dig out another recipe from the cupboard if the prime steak that she’s serving is the only dish she knows her costumers will buy.

Peter Whelan with soprano Anna Devin during a recording session for ‘Welcome Home, Mr. Dubourg!’ (Photo by Fran Marshall)

Peter Whelan, artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra, has innovatively exploited the renown of Messiah. Whelan uses the work as a “starting point” to introduce audiences to little known composers and musicians who were active in Ireland in the 18th century. One example is Matthew Dubourg, a composer and violinist who studied under Francesco Geminiani. From 1728-1752, Dubourg led the Irish State Music, the official band of Dublin Castle, which performed in the premiere of Messiah.

At Dublin Castle in August 2017, Whelan — who’s also a keyboardist and bassoonist — conducted the Ensemble Marsyas, of which he is the founding artistic director, in a program called “Rediscovering Irish State Musick.” The concert featured royal odes by Dubourg taken from manuscripts at the Royal College of Music in London. Since then, Whelan has recorded Dubourg’s ode, “Crowned with a more illustrious light,” with the Irish Baroque Orchestra for a CD titled Welcome Home, Mr. Dubourg!, which will be released in April.

Unearthing and presenting composers and musicians like Dubourg, Whelan advocates for a heritage of Western art music that contemporary Irish audiences — at home and abroad — can feel proud of. He fondly remembers directing the Portland Baroque Orchestra in an educational concert series called “Music from Dublin Castle,” which included works the Irish State Music played in the 18th century, in November 2017. At one of the concerts, children arrived in green shirts because the program was about Dublin Castle. Whelan recalls that “the parents were absolutely delighted to be able to introduce an aspect of Irish culture that didn’t involve drinking or St. Patrick’s Day.” Whelan has taken his project elsewhere, affecting many with a claim to Ireland.

Since Irish musicians routinely produce Messiah, their interpretations could, over time, become stale. Ó Duinn avoids turning out a dull rendition by emphasizing the “theatrical drama of the piece,” particularly in Part Two and Three. He also sets tempos that were once deemed “fast and uncomfortable” in Ireland; however, they are now “considered correct” and enjoyed by singers.

Proinnsías Ó Duinn conducting Staatskapelle Halle in the German city of Handel’s birth.

While Ó Duinn churns up excitement through musical means, Whelan creates fresh interest by trying to replicate the experience of the premiere. To this end, he uses the version of Messiah that was presented in Dublin at the 1742 concert. The most significant difference in this version, Whelan says, is how Handel adapted it for the personality of the singer and actress Susanna Cibber, who performed a central aria in each third of the work, “each designed to pull at the heartstrings.” The second of these three arias — “He was despised and rejected” — sounded especially relevant for Cibber because she had recently fled to Dublin after a disastrous sex scandal in London.

Whelan has been considering two other ideas that could recreate the atmosphere of the premiere. He wants to produce Messiah in a venue roughly the size of Mr. Neale’s Music Hall instead of in a cathedral, where the oratorio is typically heard. The concert setting, the conductor believes, is more faithful to the premiere because its acoustics are more immediate than a cathedral’s. Whelan is searching for such a space in Dublin, focusing his investigation on structures that were designed by Richard Cassels, the architect of Mr. Neale’s Music Hall.

Whelan also would like to employ a popular singer and actress to perform the arias Cibber sang. Someone “from outside the world of ‘Classical Music’ who is an edgy and vulnerable communicator, like Camille O’Sullivan,” he suggests, “could make the context more real.”

Tim Diovanni is a music writer from New York and a graduate student in musicology at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

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CD REVIEW: Hallelujah For Handel Arias

Robert Crowe in concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Concerto d’Amsterdam and Elizabeth Wallfisch.


Handel: The Complete Amen, Alleluia Arias
Robert Crowe, soprano, and Il Furioso
Toccata Classics TOCC0337

By Andrew J. Sammut

CD REVIEW — Nearly half of this disc is made up of Handel’s settings of the words “Amen” and/or “Hallelujah,” likely intended for performance in private homes and deliberately light on lyrical content. Yet Handel makes these spiritual declarations by turns reflective (HWV 271), resigned (HWV 274), joyous but refined (HWV 276), virtuosic (HWV 277), and, of course, triumphant (HWV 275). The album also includes three vocal works from the Harmonia Sacra, a collection of sacred solo songs published in various editions during the late 17th century and also aimed at home use: William Croft’s bright, heavily ornamented hymn to music, an anonymous composer’s graphic vision of Christ’s crucifixion, and John Church’s emotionally ranging “A Divine Hymn,” which soprano Robert Crowe calls “a truly under-appreciated masterpiece.”

This music was intended for “amateur” musicians, meaning “non-professional” rather than “unskilled, dilettante” and certainly not “student,” according to Crowe. These works are technically involved and expressive, and the musicians approach them with obvious knowledge and affection. Crowe explained over email that “the limited word choice [in the Amen and Hallelujah arias] and those two words both containing relatively broad, powerful meanings meant that the affect had to be gleaned not from text but from the music written to undergird it.” Crowe’s musical instincts are spot-on throughout as he explores each work’s unique character. He tosses off some impressive sudden register shifts, including an unexpected dip into chest voice following chiming, upper-register melismas at the end of Croft’s “A Hymn On Divine Music.” Even during the most ornate line of the three Harmonia Sacra pieces, Crowe demonstrates fine diction and consistency of tone.

Robert Crowe

The American-Canadian ensemble Il Furioso partners Crowe with chamber organ and one or two theorbos on each track. The liner notes explain the historical precedent for the double theorbos, but the warm, undulating wash underneath and around Crowe justifies itself on purely sonic terms. The first, unornamented performance of HWV 270 (as opposed to the ornamented version closing the disc) is a great example of the simple but powerful effect of one theorbo doubling the organ’s bass line while another plucks the harmonies. HWV 269 is a superb example of the whole ensemble — singer and instrumentalists — breathing together and feeling the pulse as one. Theorbo sonatas by the obscure Ferraranese composer and theorbo virtuoso Giovanni Pittoni spotlight Il Furioso co-directors Victor Coehlo and David Dolata. Charming excerpts composed by Handel for mechanical musical clock showcase organist Juvenal Correa-Salas.

This reviewer had difficulty with the recording’s audio engineering, such as rumbling on Crowe’s highest notes and some muddiness in the instruments’ lower ranges (even after trying the disc on three sound systems). Those strictly technological issues aside, the origins of these works in private musicking, the spare accompaniment, and the musicians’ sensitive interplay make this a thoroughly intimate affair.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about European classical music as well as American classical music for All About Jazz, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America, the IAJRC Journal and his own blog.

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Handel’s Messiah: Parts II & III

Join us for our second annual community sing of parts 2 & 3 of Handel’s Messiah. Two rehearsals take place before the performance which must be attended if you want to participate. The performance is open to anyone who would like to attend. Performance date and time are listed here; please visit our website for more details.

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