Powerful performances from The English Concert at the Wigmore Hall

Works written for performance in Hanover, Rome and London featured in this all-Handel programme given by the English Concert.  The evening’s second half was taken up by Dixit Dominus, dating from 1707, cloning the Italian style and declaring to all and sundry ‘anything you can do I can do better’.  The ‘Eternal City’, where Handel had settled the previous year, had seen the completion of his cantata Il duello amoroso, while Hanover saw the creation of another vocal duet, Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi, possibly written for Caroline of Ansbach whose father-in-law would become George 1st of England.  And it was within the English capital that Handel had written his Trio Sonata HWV402, one of seven published in 1739, the year of his Israel in Egypt.  

The Trio Sonata enjoyed one of those involving accounts that exposed a real affection for Handel’s chamber sonorities, with flawless musicianship to the fore.  Whether in the elegance of the opening ‘Larghetto’, the rhythmic impetus of the ‘Allegro’ or the dainty articulation of the ‘Gavotte’, The English Concert demonstrated impeccable manners in period instrument performance.  Phrases were beautifully sculpted from duetting violins (Nadja Zwiener and Anna Curzon) and were coupled with some delightful flourishes from Sergio Bucheli’s theorbo.  The whole was stylishly underpinned by Joseph Crouch (cello) and Tom Foster (harpsichord) and formed a welcome interlude between the two vocal duets.

The first, Tanti strali, revealed an ideal partnership between soprano Lucy Crowe and countertenor Iestyn Davies, both singers’ exchanges preceded by a sombre instrumental passage (Joseph Crouch’s obbligato lines a particular joy) prefiguring the pains and ripeness of passion between two lovers.  Episodes of great virtuosity and lyric intensity caught the ear, Crowe’s agility contrasting with Davies’ doleful phrases, both showing Handel as a master craftsman in a foreign tongue.

At some twenty-five minutes, Il duello amoroso was more of a vocal concerto, a thorough work-out for the heartless shepherdess Amarilli and the dull-witted swain Daliso whose amorous intentions remain unfulfilled.  Variously taunting and mocking, Lucy Crowe made clear her impeccable technique, conspicuously so in the vertiginous aria ‘Quel nocchiero che mira le sponde’, its wide vocal range no barrier to her execution.  Throughout, Davies was an expressive partner, meltingly plaintive in ‘È vanità d’un cor’, when Daliso asks questions about the promises of love.  Whether haughty or stubborn, both singers were splendidly matched, little facial asides adding comic moments.

Where Il duello amoroso displayed a demonstrable variety of mood, pacing and weight, Dixit Dominus, which sets Psalm 110, occasionally felt like an unrelenting steeplechase with the augmented vocal and instrumental ensemble packing a punch and conjuring images of an intemperate stallion.  It was admirable to hear such fulsome tone from 10 unfailingly alert singers, with Crowe and Davies joined by soprano Joanna Songi, tenor James Way and bass-baritone Ashley Riches, along with five other voices. And the brisk tempi favoured by Harry Bicket (whose name was curiously absent from the programme details) caught the mood of Handel’s exuberance mostly to perfection.  It was thrilling to hear the disciplined attack at ‘Conquassabit’, virtually graphic in its aggression.  No less bellicose was the delivery of ‘Dominus a dextris’, the wrath of God summoned in the powerful bass lines that might have had Rome’s Cardinal Colonna running for cover.  He might have been astonished at the precision of ‘Secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (a potential graveyard for singers) or the force that launched ‘Juravit Dominus’, here a startling wall of sound.

Among the soloists Davies and Crowe excelled in ‘Virgam virtutis’ and ‘Tecum in principium’, while Crowe and Songi were rapturous in the suspensions of ‘De torrente’.  Just a shame the concluding ‘Gloria’ felt so harried, virtuosity never in doubt, but the unyielding intensity was in danger of being overwhelming.

David Truslove

Lucy Crowe, Joanna Songi (sopranos), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James Way (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), The English Concert, Harry Bicket (director)

Handel: Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi, HWV197, Trio Sonata in B flat HWV 402, Il duello amoroso, HWV 82, Dixit Dominus HWV 232 (1707)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29th January 2024.

ABOVE: Iestyn Davies with The English Concert © The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024.