Saturday night and jubilant Middlesborough football supporters may have taken over Trafalgar Square but inside St Martin-in-the-Field’s airy nave, period ensemble, La Nuova Musica, have taken to the stage. All is calm as the musicians tune up. The candelabras are lit on this summer’s evening and the East window over the altar commands our attention. It is of contemporary design, a misshapen cross of mesh with an eye at its centre. The unusual window symbolises an uncertain world where things can go awry. The original window was shattered during World War Two and in its newest incarnation it attracts maximum light to the performance space.
“Handel’s Unsung Heroes” is the musical theme for this evening. The title bears no reference to war however, rather Handel’s appreciation of musicians, who, unlike singers, came way down in the monetary and musical pecking order at the beginning of the 18th century. Handel wanted to redress that. In his scores, Handel took care to give the leading musicians in the orchestra the limelight – or at least shared limelight with the vocalist.
To illustrate the point, Nuova Musica’s director, David Bates, offers a programme of overtures and arias from a selection of Handel’s operas.
On the evening in question, countertenor Tim Mead had stepped in for Iestyn Davies who had covid. Both Davies and Mead are star countertenors at the top of their game.
Mead has performed Dardanno in Handel’s Amadigi for Garsington recently and sung Apollo in Death in Venice at the Royal Opera house. Dressed in a dark suit with auburn slicked back hair, Mead was a dapper figure in church, more (James) Bond than Baroque.
The concert got off to a cracking pace with Mead singing ‘Venti,turbini’ from Handel’s Rinaldo. Rinaldo wowed British audiences when it was performed at the Queen’s Theatre London in 1711. You can see why the aria thrilled listeners. The vocal gymnastics of the countertenor are exciting and wonderful echoes of them are heard in the orchestra.
In complete contrast tragic ‘Pena tiranna’ from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula (1715) where tormented Dardano fears he has lost lover Oriana, was truly heartrending and here the intervention of solo oboe and bassoon, which both harangue and sympathise with Amadigi, show to what extent the instruments mimic the human voice. Mead brought out all the different dynamics of the aria beautifully. When he sang “Love leaves me breathless,” he had gone down to a whisper.
The second half provided the music and vocal highs of the evening. – Il trionfo del Tempo et del Disinganno (1707) ouverture was nothing short of superb where la Nuova Musica drew the maximum from Handel’s exuberant score. Violins and oboes duetted to sparkling effect and then came the solo oboe Adagio full of doubt and regret. It is an opera about a young woman’s education. Bellezza yearns for the hedonistic lifestyle and Disinganno who represents Unillusion, Insight and Time, tries to rein her in with reason, with an exquisite aria ‘Crede l’uom’. The soft recorder expressed the relentless beat of Time, also Time’s innocence. Time is not the culprit but ignoring it is a mistake. So Disinganno’s voices rises slowly and inexorably towards musical heaven.
There followed two more exquisite arias where La Nuova Musica musicians and Mead’s voice melded so perfectly. In Scherza infida from the opera Ariodante, soft upper strings, pizzicato basses and bassoon supports and express the hero Ariodante’s sorrow. Meanwhile the ‘Sento la gioia’ aria from opera Amadigi, where Amadigi has been freed from Melissa’s clutches, uplifts and is life affirming. The trumpet is a wonderful translator of joy and the musical interplay between Mead and trumpeter Paul Sharp was a delight.
This was an invigorating evening and one which showcases Handel’s tremendous capacity for conveying what it is to be human. The great acoustics at St Martin-in-the-fields brought out each period instrument clearly with just enough echo for warmth of tone.
The standard is now very high at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Get along there quick – seats fill up fast.
Concert Programme St Martin-in-the-Fields https://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/whats-on/?category=211
La Nuova Musica latest recording “Handel’s Unsung Heroes” https://www.lanuovamusica.co.uk/news/ijsvwle2k4w88ka091jlsfey7rruig