Truly festive Handel with The Sixteen

HANDEL – Coronation Anthem “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened”

Motet: “Silete Venti” / Psalms: Nisi Dominus / Dixit Dominus

The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra / Conductor: Harry Christophers

Soloist (Silete Venti): Gilian Keith (soprano)

NZ International Festival of the Arts

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 1st March, 2012

Now, this is the kind of concert in terms of impact and quality that helps make a festival worth remembering. The trappings were, in fact, few – there were no bugles, no drums, just people-generated excitement, right from the initial “buzz” of queuing outside to actually get into the Town Hall, and up to the moment that these world-famous musicians walked onto the platform in front of us to begin their concert.

I wonder if people who attend concerts actually realize what a treasure the WellingtonTown Hall is in respect of providing experiences whose memory seems to embrace the “occasion” as well as the performance – it’s partly my being a bit of an event junkie that squeezes these remarks out of me, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the difference in atmosphere between this concert and last week’s in the Michael Fowler Centre which opened the Festival. The Stravinsky performances were themselves terrific – but I feel the MFC needs a LOT of extraneous help for any event to really “buzz”, whereas the Town Hall simply reflects and enhances what’s already going on.

This was one of two concerts offered by The Sixteen (my concert companion nudged me fiercely at one point and hissed, “I think there are seventeen” (of them)! – shades of “The Sound of Music”?….). One could have had, as here, Handel in a grandly ceremonial manner, readily encompassing all manner of structures and emotions as befits the work of a composer writing for public occasions; or one could have turned, instead, to the rather more circumspect a capella world of various native British composers over a period of several centuries.

I would imagine that, after experiencing the group’s performances of Handel, there would be a number of concertgoers who, like myself, wished they had purchased tickets to both concerts. In the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V, we such unfortunates will on Saturday evening be as those “gentlemen of England now a-bed” who “shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”. One must, however, thank one’s stars that one heard the group on at least one of the occasions. And after all, pleasure can still be had from imagining how wonderful a second concert WOULD be, having already enjoyed one (a case of “Heard melodies are sweet, but….”, perhaps)…

For those who enjoy chancing their arm with the prospect of picking up last-minute cancelled tickets, The Sixteen is indeed performing again on Saturday, 3rd March at the Town Hall at 7:30pm, a program of British a capella music, ranging from works by Thomas Tallis to those by James MacMillan. In the meantime one can enjoy recalling the highlights of the group’s Handel presentation, involving various soloists, choir and orchestra.

One noticed immediately the intense focus of the sound, both from singers and players, obviously steeped in a performing tradition which has undergone a considerable revolution over the last fifty years. The modus operandi of such groups as The Sixteen sits firmly upon using the forces that the composer would have expected, and producing the sounds in a style that corresponds with period musicologists’ findings. Happily, these strictures were accompanied in this case by a performing style that set great store on sounds with a variety of tone, colour and nuance (emanating from, or else mirrored by, the expressive gestures of conductor Harry Christophers, as non-metrical as one could ever hope to find) – though all within the parameters of accepted baroque practice.

Beginning with the Coronation Anthem “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened”, orchestra and voices commanded the hall’s sound-vistas, the phrases having at once discernible focus but an ear-catching “bloom”, with everything precisely balanced – one could set one’s ear to “find” any line or texture it wanted and follow its course. The fugal character of the section “Let justice and judgement…” found the composer employing sounds of structures and balances, suggesting the power of law and order. Here, the individual lines took on plenty of character, the timbres being allowed to “sound” instead of subjected to a homogenous blend, so that one was always aware of a quartet-like texture. The lively “Alleluia” had a sensuous feel in the dovetailing of the lines, tied together with an appropriately celebratory concluding note.

Gillian Keith was the soprano soloist for the motet Silete Venti, the text a colorful and descriptive evocation of the bliss which comes with faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The soloist had pure, bell-like tones and flexible energy aplenty to do the music justice, though I thought in places a slightly “kittenish ” aspect crept into her singing, one rather at odds with the subject matter of the motet. The text, I thought, wasn’t without its idiosyncrasies – e.g. “If you strike you cause no wound, your blows are as caresses….” – pardon? Set against her slightly-less-than-crisp articulation of the words in places was a freedom and flexibility of impulse and movement which the singer used to negotiate her runs throughout “Date serta” with such winning ease and grace as to disarm other criticism. And her breathtaking energies in tackling the flourishes at the repeat of “Veni, vein transfige me” in the first part was matched in excitement by her feathery, stratospheric vocal dancings throughout the conclusion’s gigue-like “Alleluiahs”, singer and instrumentalists particularly enjoying things like the effervescent exchange of triplet figurations just before the end.

After the interval we were rejoined by the choir for the two psalm settings, Dixit Dominus and Nisi Dominus, both youthful works (Handel was in his early twenties), but displaying their composer’s great precocity, not only in choral writing, but in his use of the orchestra. The more spectacular of the works, the slightly earlier Dixit Dominus, was wisely left to the end. It would be tiresome to reproduce all of my scribbled notes, inspired by the performances’ many felicities, but certain things deserved to be savored, such as the quality of the contributions from the solo voices within the choir. In the first of the Psalm settings, Nisi Dominus, both tenor and bass made a telling impression, the former’s “Vanum set” a pleasingly-shaped vocal arch of flexible tones, and the latter’s fiery, properly warlike “Sicut sagittae in manu potentis” (As arrows in the hand of the mighty) properly pinning back our ears. Throughout, I liked the bringing forward to the front of the platform the soloists from the choir, making for an almost operatic effect, and giving each voice’s utterance its proper focus.

Dixit Dominus made for an exciting and sonorous conclusion to the evening in this performance – muscular energy at the outset from the orchestra and incisive lines from the choir launched the work with a will – the brief occasional solo lines, with the voices remaining within the choir, struggled in places to be properly heard, though a couple of the more brightly-focused voices managed to make their tones “tell” in the midst of the music’s cut-and-thrust activity. The more extended, out-the front solos were superbly done, and beautifully accompanied. I particularly liked the teamwork of soloists, choir and orchestra at “Dominus a dextris tuis”, the solo voices overlapping and interchanging words and phrases with almost operatic excitement, followed by the unleashing of tremendous tensions at the words “die irae” from choir and orchestra. Among other ear-catching moments was the choir’s pointed staccato treatment of “conquassabit capita in terra”, the words spat out like machine-gun fire, their effect made to sting! Following this the soprano duet “De torrent in via bibet” was of soothing balm, two differently-toned voices blending to great effect.

Impossible to do justice to everything, here – in general, I thought Handel’s music magnificently served throughout, the music’s energies liberated, the textures enlivened, the beauties savoured. The Town Hall’s acoustic gave the performances all the immediacy they deserved, enabling us to enjoy to the full the talents of The Sixteen, their orchestra and their obviously charismatic director. It wasn’t surprising to find people on their their feet applauding at the end, demonstrating their appreciation and enjoyment.



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