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Proms 2009: Prom 4 – Partenope \ Handel \ Concerto Copenhagen

July 19, 2009

LISTEN (ONE)


LISTEN (TWO)

I’m far from qualified to provide a considered and detailed review of the concert performance of Handel’s late opera Partenope given by Concerto Copenhagen and a variety of international soloists including German counter-tenor and (I understand) charming dish Andreas Scholl (left or above depending on how big the screen you’re viewing this on is).

Handel’s music just fails to do it for me, you see. Tell me I’m going to a concert of Handel’s music and my mind will leap to the oft played, tiresome cliche that is the Hallelujah chorus. That one piece of music exploited to underpin any visual joke and included on any “best of” CD or top 100 favourites of all time playlist is guaranteed to bring me out in hives. 

I’d said as much – perhaps a little too bluntly – to Proms Director Roger Wright when he and I met up a few weeks before the launch of the Proms season this year. I dismissed Handel’s music as boring. I did get into quite a lot of trouble because of that. People sneered. People crossed the other side of the street to avoid me. Charles Hazlewood looked the other way when I walked past him outside the BBC’s White City building in West London. How dare I diss the sacred Handel’s music. What was I thinking? 

What people have failed to take into account about me is my genuine desire to seek a complete turnaround in opinion. It’s as though I reckon that those things I hate the most will, if I only look hard enough, turn out to yield something breathtakingly beautiful, or at the very least I’ll end up feeling unexpectedly moved by something I formerly thought would be something I wasn’t interested in. That’s what happened with Stockhausen and – after years of convincing myself I was straight – I ended up gay and realising it wasn’t quite as bad a thing as I originally thought. 

So, could the same happen with Handel and his music? Could I – in the year we mark the 250 anniversary of the composer’s death – actually end up appreciating Handel’s music? Or better, could I end up loving it? Could I, in fact, end up going to Roger Wright at the end of the Proms season this year and shaking the gorgeously fluffy man firmly by the hand, whispering in his ear the confession: “You know what Wodge? I actually quite liked it. Programme some more next year, will you?”

If I was looking for a road to Damascus experience I fear it didn’t happen during tonight’s performance. But before you reach for the comment form and bashing out an angry rebuttal on your keyboard do please read the rest of this post. 

At three hours long it was going to be a tough listen. I wasn’t able to get to the Hall on account of a family get together in the rural idyll which exists outside Sevenoaks. It was blustery and rainy but marvellous fun. By the time we’d finished there was only 15 minutes to get home in time for the beginning of the live broadcast let alone get to the Royal Albert Hall. Me and significant other made do with the car radio. 

Don’t get me wrong. It was a polished performance. Even I could work that out. Handel’s music sounded painstakingly precise with an energetic bounce here or a soaring melodic line there. There was no question about the stamina of Concerto Copenhagen who’s unfailing ability to reliable and enthusiastically deliver yet another dance rhythm was impressive. The band were a machine – a musical machine in fact – and despite not being a lover of Handel’s seemingly repetitive orchestrations even I could determine this was a deeply impressive performance. The voices were unexpectedly warm and clear . There was none of the hard-edged, uncompromisingly worthy singing and playing my mind had already concluded I should hear before the performance began. This was a fantastic performance. And I was listening on the radio.

But it’s Handel’s music which leaves me cold. Yes there is a pure kind of beauty in the sound but it is the seemingly never-ending ornamentation which drives me up the wall. Just as the precision of the playing was impressive so too the delicacy in the music can slowly drive me mad. It’s as though that very delicacy brings with it a worthiness which commands respect and devotion of Handel and his art. The weight of history drips from his score and with what seems like nothing but melisma, fugues and untold number of tierce de picardies. It’s not long after setting out with the best intentions to love his music (or at least find what it is which flicks the switch) that the sound all melts into one massive soundscape, all of it underpinned by a harpisichord. 

Still, I did try. If you see Roger Wright do tell him I tried. And I’ll try extra hard at the Tudor music thing tomorrow lunchtime. Promise.

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3 Comments
  1. David England permalink

    That’s pretty much my reaction too. I’ll be going to Prom 36 (Coronation Anthems) and Prom 53 (Water Music), but could not bear the thought of an entire unstaged opera.

    Does that make me beige?

  2. Chris Poppe permalink

    There you are, I thought it was lovely. Which is an extremely beige reaction!!!

    But as you know Handel and I go back A Long Way.

  3. I didn’t attend the Partenope prom, but have the Copenhagen production on DVD. Whilst I have picked up a few vocal deficiencies here and there, my overall impression of this opera, which I am hearing and watching for the first time, is favourable. I have recently conducted extracts from Messiah [including Hallelujah Chorus] and needed to hear a Handel opera to hear the other side of Handel. I am glad I have come across this Copenhagen Partenope. The singing of Inge Dam Jenson is superb, that of Christoph Dumaux sparkling, that of Andreas Scholl illuminating, and that of Tuva Semmingsen most enjoyable. The final act is particularly beautiful, and that final duet a complete wonder. On hearing this opera, I feel stimulated to discover more.

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