Archive for Handel

The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on September 14, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been such a hectic week getting ready for our new arrivals at the University of Sussex that I’ve been largely limited to posting short items and recycled material. Today is no exception either, as I have been on campus again for another Freshers’ induction week event and now have to prepare a talk for new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences for tomorrow morning. Anyway, all these busy preparations made me think today of the famous instrumental passage from Act III of Handel’s Oratorio Solomon which depict in wonderfully lively fashion  similar preparations preceding the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. I know that’s a feeble pretext for posting a bit of music, but I thought I’d at least put a little twist on it by including a performance rather different from what you might be expecting.

This version of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba is by wonderful Welsh harpist Glenda Clwyd whom I remember hearing play at a couple of events when I was living in Cardiff. This clip is of an impromptu performance and there are a couple of small mistakes, but I think it’s a lovely rendition, the uniquely gentle sound of the harp making it less frantic than most versions.



R.I.P. Sir Colin Davis

Posted in Music with tags , , , on April 15, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday (Sunday 14th April), the conductor Sir Colin Davis died at the age of 85. This is very sad news indeed. I won’t event attempt to write a comprehensive obituary piece here. Many others have already done this much more knowledgeably than I could ever do. You can also get an idea of the affection in which he was held by looking at the condolence page at the website of the London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra with which he was associated for over fifty years.

What I will do is pay a small tribute in my own way by posting this sprightly and engaging version of For unto us a child is born from Handel’s Messiah which shows him in action, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (at the Barbican in London) with a very characteristic combination of authority and obvious enjoyment.

Farewell, Sir Colin Davis. You will be greatly missed.

Se pieta di me non senti

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on November 3, 2012 by telescoper

I heard this piece of music on Radio 3 earlier today and it completely blew me away.  I must get the DVD of the 2011 performance of Handel’s  Giulio Cesare from which it was taken, but in the meantime here’s a clip from Youtube to give you an idea. This is the marvellous Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra singing the da capo aria Se pieta di me non senti. It’s a truly sublime and moving performance from a singer at the very peak of her prowess. Brava!


Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2012 by telescoper

I took time out from a busy week yesterday evening for a performance by Welsh National Opera of Jephtha by George Frideric Handel. Based on a biblical story (from the Book of Judges), Jephtha was written late in Handel’s life (indeed it was the last major work Handel wrote) as an oratorio rather than an opera, and was first performed as such in 1752.

Last night’s production brought movement, scenery and costumes to Handel’s lovely music in an attempt to turn it into an opera. It was only partially successful in doing that. Owing to the nature of the piece, it appeared as a series of rather static tableaux rather than a compelling music drama. It did however, feature excellent music and singing, and very imaginative use of a rather simple set, an interior of faded and battered opulence, complete with broken plaster and bullet holes, and costumes that evoke the period leading up to World War II.

You can get a good idea of the look of the performance in the following WNO trailer:

The story revolves around the character Jephtha who is called upon to lead the people of Gilead in battle against Ammon. He takes up the challenge, and when he proves victorious he rashly (and cruelly) vows to make a sacrifice of the first human being to greet him when he returns home. That turns out to be his daughter, Iphis. Will he carry out his pledge and turn Iphis into a burnt offering? Will an Angel of the Lord intervene and spare her? I won’t spoil the plot, except that that the operatorio does not end in the same way as the bible story seems to…

As for the singers, I thought Fflur Wyn (Iphis) was the pick – her voice beautifully conveyed the innocence and fragility of the young daughter. Robin Blaze as Hamor (Iphis’ betrothed) was also excellent in the counter-tenor role. I wasn’t so keen on Robert Murray as Jephtha, whose voice was rather thin and undistinguished especially early on in the performance. But it was really Handel’s music that took centre stage. Although the performance contained much to savour, I’m not convinced that staging Jephtha as an opera was really worth it. I would probably have enjoyed it just as much if it had been performed as an oratorio, like Messiah.


Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on December 12, 2010 by telescoper

Just back from St David’s Hall, Cardiff, where I’ve been listening to a performance of Handel‘s great oratorio Messiah by the Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus of Welsh National Opera under the baton of Conductor Lothar Koenigs. I haven’t got time to write much (as I’m famished), but I enjoyed the concert so much I wanted to write something before the buzz disappeared.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, almost 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I haven’t seen Messiah live for a very long time, and tonight was like meeting an old friend after a long absence, and discovering that he’s just like you remembered him all those years ago.

Setting aside the wistful reminiscences it brought to mind, tonight’s performance was in any case exceptional. The Orchestra of WNO was on top form, and Lothar Koenigs directed them with great skill and vision. The tempo might have been a bit brisk in places for some tastes – or so I was told in the bar at the interval – but I thought the pace was excellent. Soprano Laura Mitchell and tenor Robin Tritschler both sang with crystal clarity, and bass baritone Darren Jeffrey was in fine voice too. Mezzo Patricia Bardon seemed to struggle a little bit to assert herself; her chest tones have a slightly woolly sound which at times got lost in the undergrowth of the orchestra’s string section, but that was only a problem in a few places.

The centerpiece of the performance, however, was a magnificent display by the WNO chorus. They were kept under a pretty tight rein for most of the time by Chorus Master Stephen Harris, who had them holding back enough in reserve that when they unleashed the full fortissimo the dramatic effect was truly thrilling. Little surprise that they got such warm applause at the end; I thought they were magnificent.

The one thing I wasn’t sure about before the concert started was whether and to what extent the folk at St David’s Hall would observe the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus. I’ve never been sure how widespread this practice was; it was definitely accepted (and indeed expected) way back when in the City Hall, Newcastle, but I fear many in the rest of the UK think of us Geordies as uncivilised rabble and for all I knew the posher parts of England might have abandoned this quaint practice decades ago.

Cardiff is actually a bit like Newcastle in some ways, but the tradition of music making is much stronger here in Wales. On the other hand -as one of my former colleagues from London days warned me when he heard I’d decided to move here – Cardiff is also a bit old-fashioned. I know what he meant, and I think he was right, but I don’t think it’s at all the worse for being so.

Anyway, I was delighted that, when the time came for the Hallelujah Chorus, the entire audience rose as one to its feet to hear a stunning rendition of this most majestic piece of music. It was King George II’s decision to stand in acknowledgement of Handel’s genius that initiated this ritual, and there’s a very special feeling knowing that you’re celebrating something that’s been celebrated the same way for over 250 years and is still something that’s completely exhilirating to listen to.


For unto us a child is born

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2009 by telescoper

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year you will now that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, the great composer who was born in what is now Germany but who moved to London in 1712 and became an adopted Englishman, taking up Britisch citizenship in 1727. BBC Radio 3 has been celebrating all year, and I’ve heard lots of Handel’s prolific output for the first time thanks to them. I am a bit ashamed that I have put any Handel on here so far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t like his music – far from it, in fact – he’s so good that I can even put up with the harpsichords. Sometimes. I guess it’s just that I never got around to it and wasn’t sure what to pick.

Anyway, it’s time to correct this error of omission. This is an appropriate time of year, in fact. Like many brought up in England (or Wales), one of the essential rituals of Christmas time is listening to Messiah. This is a little strange because it was originally intended to be performed at Easter. Another strange tradition is that everyone (orchestra, choir and audience) stands during the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that this is because King George II stood when he heard it and, following Royal protocol, everyone else had to stand too. For some reason, over two hundred years later it still happens. It’s just one of those things that stuck.

However, after much thought, I decided not to use the Hallelujah Chorus here, but not because I don’t like it. It’s a thrilling piece and full of nostalgia for me too. The reason is that for many people it’s all they ever hear, and there’s a lot more to Messiah than that. So I’ve gone for another piece, which suits the season especially well and also exemplifies Handel’s gift for vocal and orchestral writing. This sprightly and engaging version was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

My compliments of the season!