On Wednesday 14 April 2022, two London festivals came together when the London Handel Festival brought a programme of Baroque sacred music to St John’s Smith Square’s Easter Festival. Adrian Butterfield directed the London Handel Orchestra from the violin in a programme bookended by a pair of Handel motets with soprano Hilary Cronin (winner of the 2021 London Handel Singing Competition), Saeviat tellus HWV240 (from 1707) and Silete venti HWV242, one of Handel’s last works in the genre from 1724 which rather neatly it re-uses the final ‘Alleluia’ from Saeviat tellus. In between there were two works by Vivaldi, Stabat Mater, RV621 with alto Hugh Cutting (winner of the Ferrier Award), and the Concerto for violin and cello in F major RV544, Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio, where Butterfield was joined by cellist Katherine Sharman.
Handel’s Saeviat tellus was one of a group of works commissioned by the Colonna family for the Carmelite friars of S Maria di Monte Santo in Rome. It was probably premiered on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel on 16 July 1707, along with other sacred pieces by Handel commissioned by the Colonna family (possibly including the Dixit Dominus). The text of Saeviat tellus is firmly Carmelite, telling of how the Virgin appeared in a dream to confirm the Order to the Pope. Handel would re-use some of the music in his London period, and the instrument introduction seemed to take us firmly into the world of opera. ‘Let the land rage harshly, Assaults, storms – Carmelites do not fear’ sang Hilary Cronin in brilliant trumpet tones, often duetting with instruments from the orchestra. The work was probably written for a soprano castrato and with its strict da capo form and elaborate vocal writing in this first aria, the opera house was not far away.
After a recitative, we had a calm and serene Adagio, beautifully sung by Cronin over gently swaying strings, a magical siciliana slightly at odds with words that urge the night to stay quiet and unchanging for the Carmelites. The Andante, ‘Stellae fidae’ featured a strong soprano line and unison strings, creating a wonderfully striking sound-world, and a final recitative led to an enjoyably showy Alleluia. Cronin sang the whole motet with a glorious sense of technical security allied to fine style, she projected strong direct tones, and moved easily between the brilliant trumpet and the more intimate.
We then moved to Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, written in 1712 not for Venice but for Brescia where, like Handel’s motet, it was presumably sung by a star castrato. It is a gorgeous work, Vivaldi sets the first ten verses of the liturgical poem, he also ‘cheats’ by repeating the music of the first three verses for the second three but we don’t care as it is so lovely. But the writing is classic Vivaldi, inventive orchestral textures, toe-tapping tunes, gorgeous moments, and sometimes these happen irrespective of the subject of the text. Close your eyes and you don’t always know that the work is about a mother mourning.
Hugh Cutting sang with warmly expressive tones and a rich vibrato, duetting finely with the orchestra in the first movement and relishing the beauty of Vivaldi’s writing. The second movement, almost an accompagnato, gave Cutting a chance to be expressive and intense, and in the third he really put over the meaning except that Vivaldi writes a lovely movement where the music has a perky swing to it, something the orchestra brought out, leaving something of a dichotomy between music and meaning. The music then repeated for the next three verses, and Cutting showed fine style in the way he varied the expression. The seventh movement featured string writing that took is right to the Four Seasons, with a voice part that undulated beautifully. The gently swaying Siciliana of the penultimate movement again seemed to contrast with the words and we ended with a vigorous Amen. Cutting has a fabulous rich timbre to his voice with interesting dark hints, and a lovely way of shaping a line but his approach felt a little too 19th century for my taste. And he seemed to take the words a little too much to heart in a way that the music did not and you wanted to say ‘lighten up a bit’.
Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and cello in F major comes from a set that he prepared for Cardinal Ottoboni in 1720 (Ottoboni was one of Handel’s patrons during his Roman visit). Its subtitle refers to the idea of Proteus being able to change shape and the piece is a visual joke, he wrote the solo lines so that they could be played by either instrument. Ottoboni was highly musical (he wrote librettos for cantatas and oratorios) so Vivaldi clearly presumed he would enjoy the joke.
The first movement proved to be rather perky with lots of string crossing, a typical Vivaldian texture, then when the soloists emerged (over just continuo), they answered each other in a lovely dialogue with a sense of ‘anything you can do’ about it, the violin daring the cello. The slow movement was just with continuo, clearly Vivaldi couldn’t or wouldn’t write for a solo cello line over tutti. This slow movement was an intimate dialogue again, tossing elaborate phrases to each other. We returned to move vigorous material for the final movement, dazzling passagework from the soloists with, finally, some fearsome duet passages.
We ended with a mystery. Handel’s Silete venti was written in 1724 in London. That much we know. Why he was writing a new (it only re-cycles one movement, the final Alleluia) Latin motet is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was for one of the Catholic embassy chapels in London or maybe for a private soiree. We may never know. The work begins with a terrifically grand introduction and we are back in Saeviat tellus‘ world of raging storms, except here the soprano enters, commanding the winds to be silent. And, oh boy, did Hilary Cronin command: her first entry was terrific, and she continued through the movement with a strong but shapely line. She not only relished the words, but made their meaning clear. The second movement was graceful, finely phrased with a lovely up front, straight tone. After a joyful accompagnato we had the well-shaped Andante full of joy and meaning and leading to the vigorous second half to the aria, with Cronin really spitting out phrases and dazzling runs. And of course, we got to hear that Alleluia again.
Hilary Cronin (soprano), Hugh Cutting (countertenor), London Handel Orchestra, Adrian Butterfield (director)
Handel – Saeviat tellus for soprano, two oboes, bassoon & strings, HWV 240; Vivaldi – Stabat Mater for alto & strings, Concerto for violin and cello in F major RV 544, ‘Il Proteo ò sia il mondo al rovversciol’ Handel – Silete venti for soprano, two oboes, bassoon & strings, HWV 242.
St John’s Smith Square, London; Wednesday 13th April 2022.
ABOVE: Hilary Cronin (c) Helena Cooke