Handel & Delirious Love
Australian Haydn Ensemble/ Sara Macliver
Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music,
29 September 2019
With the concert season nearly at an end for 2019, it is safe to say that the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s Handel & Delirious Love programme was decidedly one of the highlights of my musical year.
Performing on instruments of the period, dating from 1760 to modern day replicas, the eight-strong ensemble was directed from the harpsichord by guest director Benjamin Bayl and adeptly led by artistic director and violinist Skye McIntosh. Joining them as soloist was the silver-voiced soprano Sara Macliver.
Together, they performed a programme of music that delved into times before Josef Haydn, the composer from whom the ensemble takes its name, proving that they are not just adept at performing the music of the classical era, but are also able to take baroque style into their giant stride. The music presented was by GF Handel and his contemporary, Francesco Scarlatti – the little-known brother of Alessandro and uncle of Domenico.
Opening the two halves of the programme were cameos by Alessandro and Francesco Scarlatti, arranged by the 18th century English classical and baroque writer and composer Charles Avison, best known for his concerti grossi. The Concerto no 3 in F major in 5 movements and the Concerto no 5 in D minor in 4 movements included baroque guitar played by Simon Martyn-Ellis and violone, played by Laura Vaughan. Spirited dance rhythms and polyphonic themes were tossed around the ensemble, who created a lucence that threw into relief the balanced lines and clean textures of the arrangements. The ‘No 5’ ended with a jazzy but hushed pizzicato Minuetto.
Avison is said to have expressed anti-Handelian sentiments in his writings. So it is somewhat ironic that the rest of the programme comprised works by Handel. For the motet Silete Venti, a five movement parody piece containing three da-capo arias, Martyn-Ellis switched to theorbo and the instrumental ensemble was joined by Amy Power on oboe. The ensemble’s imposing opening bars blossomed into busy polyphony before a declamatory entry by Macliver rose through the texture. Sara Macliver’s voice and style are perfectly suited to this repertoire and she delivers with tremendous refinement and enviable technique. The da capo arias were graced with daring embellishment. Macliver sang the aria Date serta with finely controlled, lengthy melismatic lines over a gently ambulant instrumental line, a fiery coloratura in the middle section of the aria. She dazzled with the following Alleluja. Tornami a vagheggiar a show stopper from Handel’s Alcina was a super exemplar of strength within agility, proven with a heavily ornamented da capo section.
The final piece, Handel’s cantata Il delirio amoroso HWV 99 was a wonderful choice for all to showcase their talents. Theorbo alternated with guitar, oboe with recorders. Introduced by a plaintive oboe, the strings join in question and answer style. Skye McIntosh performed an impressive solo cadenza in dialogue with Sara Macliver in the first aria Un pensiero voli in ciel, Macliver contrasting vocal pyrotechnics with restrained vibrato and purity of tone in a lengthy crescendo ‘pedal point’. The aria Per te lascial la luce was a hypnotising weave of sostenuto singing over continuo accompaniment from theorbo, cello and violone.
The performers graced the audience with an encore, the aria Felicissima quest’ alma from Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, HWV 122, a gem of an aria with recorder continuo and pizzicato strings.
The concert was supported by excellent programme notes. However, including the text for the motets would have helped the narrative and elucidated the word painting.
Sara Macliver’s artistry demonstrates why she is Australia’s pre-eminent soprano exponent of baroque vocal style. Supported by a gilt-edged performance from the Australian Haydn Ensemble, this was a winning combination of music and musicians.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©