Spring 2009

Handel With Care

Saturday 4 April 2009

The Great Hall, Reading University, was the venue for South Chiltern Choral Society’s homage to George Frideric Handel 250 years after his death in 1759. The choir was directed by Conductor Gwyn Arch and accompanied by the South Chiltern Orchestra, leader Cristian Persinaru, with its rock solid brass section.

In celebrating Handel, one is spoilt for choice amongst a copious output. South Chiltern Choral Society got it about right, opting for a cross-section of Handel’s declamatory and lyrical styles. The first half juxtaposed three Coronation Anthems with chamber works; the second coupled the eight-movement Dixit Dominus with Art thou troubled? a moment of reflection as the reverberations from De torrente in via bibet died away.

The Coronation Anthems showcased the choir’s all-round competence, especially their discreet, unforced projection and tight ensemble. At first, in the opening chorus of Anthem 3, the choir felt muted in an acoustic that favoured the orchestra and gave full licence to the trumpets. But in the second section they expanded into a fuller, rounded tone. Whilst the introduction to Anthem 2 might have benefited from a livelier tempo, the second section began with a beautifully controlled low alto entry.  Already, Gwyn Arch’s gift for silences and endings was evident in some finely timed pauses and weighted rubatos.

The smaller chamber items were then interspersed, comprising two choir pieces, Where’re you walk and Silent worship, both sensitively sung, and solos and duets featuring soprano, Lisa Anne Robinson, and mezzo soprano, Rachael Lloyd.

The soprano’s Chi cede al furore was an ornate tour de force, but for my taste a little too powerful in its baroque context. Her full-throttle delivery also all but eclipsed the mezzo soprano’s slighter sound in the love duet, Caro! Bella!. The latter, however, came through beautifully in her solo rendering of Omra ma fui, complemented by the orchestra’s sympathetic accompaniment.

Zadoc the Priest (Anthem 1) enjoyed a well honed crescendo up to the triumphant choral entry, culminating in a rousing God Save the King a hallmark Handelian finale.

In the second half, Dixit Dominus offered Handel’s full palette of colours: full-blooded choruses and a number of duets and solos, which the continuo cello and harpsichord accompanied superbly. Of particular note were the mezzo aria, Virgam virtutis, the dissonant Dominus a dextris tuis and the wonderfully layered De torrente in via bibet, revealing the solo soprano at her very best and unfazed by an unreasonably high register. Neither the staccato polyphony of Jaravit Domino nor the complex strands of Tu es sacerdos deterred the choir.

Handel’s detractors say he had an eye on the main chance and especially the money. True or not, quality is quality, and full justice was done to it by Gwyn Arch and his choir. For more of this, and a complete change of mood, you should reserve 27th June at the Great Hall for “Sounds American” and a picnic.

Trevor Howell

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