In a momentous year of international sport and culture for its host city, the 35th London Handel Festival was a reminder that London’s international city status has roots that go back many centuries. Through its celebration of London’s most-loved musical son (albeit adopted), the festival gave deep musical and cultural insights into Handel’s world.
This year’s festival programme included several large-scale events. Festival director Laurence Cummings conducted a staging of Riccardo Primo at the Royal College and La Nuova Musica performed the first version of Il pastor fido, which was composed 300 years ago this year. But the beating heart of this extensive six-week season of concerts, talks and walks belongs in Handel’s own parish church, St George’s Hanover Square, where the Handel Singing Competition and dozens of intimate performances take place.
Every year the singing competition exposes talented young singers to London audiences. It also brings an air of youthful vitality to the festival, as demonstrated at a concert featuring the finalists of the 2011 competition. With two of the five singers taken ill, the line-up was considerably thinner than advertised, but the young sopranos who performed with the London Handel Orchestra and director Adrian Butterfield more than made up for the loss. The 2011 winner Stephanie True was, unsurprisingly, the biggest treat. Her spirited account of Tu fedel? Tu costante (HWV171) exhibited a full-bodied, lyrical voice that also matched the orchestra well in the closing motet, Silete venti (HWV242), with its startling opening soprano entry silencing the turbulent orchestra.
Another former Handel Singing Competition winner and soprano, Ruby Hughes, was the star of an ingenious Laurence Cummings programme the following week, also at St George’s. Under the title Orphée, Hughes and a quartet of instrumentalists performed three very different interpretations of the Orpheus myth. Hearing Clérambault’s perfumed, courtly version next to the lilting and intoxicating ferryman’s aria in Handel’s cantata Del bell’idolo mio (HWV104) was fascinating, while Rameau’s Orphée had a sense of adventure and charm at odds with the theme of the underworld. Hughes shone throughout, but in the Handel especially, and if the ensemble performance as a whole had uneven corners, her star quality made the evening a satisfying whole.
Handel’s music was juxtaposed with very different composers a few days later when London Early Opera, directed by harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham, presented ‘Handel at Vauxhall’. The programme, inspired by the famous Pleasure Gardens, cleverly evoked mid-eighteenth-century London. Narrator David E Coke summed up the gardens’ peculiarly British blend of art and popular culture with songs by Handel’s contemporaries performed alongside arias, instrumental suites and organ concerti. The only real disappointment was that the concert took place in Mayfair’s Grosvenor Chapel rather than around the area of the recently restored Vauxhall Gardens itself.