The BBC Proms’ Handel anniversary celebrations come to a climax in the final week with a giant performance of Messiah. In the meantime a roll-call of period performance specialists is reminding us how much of his music is visible these days, from operas to oratorios and everything in between.
On Wednesday it was the turn of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Founded in 1979, The Sixteen have their own 30th anniversary this year, which may explain why they chose such a celebratory programme, featuring all four of Handel’s Coronation Anthems interspersed with solo vocal spots by Handel soprano of the moment Carolyn Sampson.
The stage was set for an evening of festivities on a thoroughly Baroque scale, and yet somehow it rarely felt like that. Christophers is not a conductor who likes to let the music rip. Everything here felt buttoned up in a very gentlemanly way, the phrases perfectly groomed, the textures glossy as silk, the rhythms elegantly turned, as if Handel had to be coiffed and tailored to look his best for the occasion. This approach came to a head in the celebrated introduction to Zadok the Priest, where Christophers was determined to stop the music building up to an explosion of joy as it was surely meant to.
On the plus side, technical standards were high. The Sixteen, much enlarged in numbers, sang with fine precision and were well balanced against the orchestra. Sampson sparkled in her solos from Semele, despite some decorations in dubious style, and held the audience captive in the emotional stillness of the Salve regina.
The late night Prom was devoted wholly to the music of Philip Glass. As the clock ticks towards midnight the mind should be in a suitably dulled state to accept Glass’s slowly repetitive music, though even then the outer movements of the Violin Concerto of 1987 felt soporific beyond the call of duty, and Gidon Kremer’s wiry sound in the solo part did not help. The Symphony No 7, receiving its first UK performance, was better. Though Glass’s dabbling in ancient Mexican culture comes dangerously close to cliché, the music is more varied, the harmonies richer, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies still sounded alert at the end. ★★★☆☆
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