City Halls, Glasgow
Between his arrival in London in 1712 and the composition of the masterly text-setting that is Messiah, Handel learned how to appreciate the possibilities of the English language. The wiser composer, surely, would not have touched the Ambrose Philips text for Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne with a barge-pole.
“Let Envy then conceal her head, and blasted faction glide away. No more her hissing tongues we’ll dread, secure in this auspicious day.” So sang Neal Davies with more animation than the words deserved. It is the nadir of a nine-movement tribute to the wife of George the First that never soars in its libretto but is fascinating as an indication of how swiftly the composer assimilated the musical vocabulary of his adopted country.
The bass-baritone was one of a trio of vocal soloists hymning Queen Anne in Glasgow on Friday evening, with soprano Louise Alder and countertenor Iestyn Davies joining SCO principal trumpet Peter Franks in the luxury line-up of the front-line. The Ode borrows cheerfully from Henry Purcell, especially in some of the writing for the high male voice, which has the biggest share of the work.
There are some exquisite moments in the piece, particularly a soprano and countertenor duet with oboe and string trio accompaniment that gives onto a chorus, and the SCO Chorus had some very lovely music to sing.
The choir were on stellar form all night, laying out their stall with the marvellous vocal entry to Zadok the Priest. The first and third of Handel’s Coronation Anthems framed a programme entitled “Music for the Royals” that preceded the upcoming contemporary coronation by complete coincidence. Devout Monarchists may even have bridled at conductor Bernard Labadie’s characterisation of it as a “fluke”, rather than an act of Divine Will.
The French-Canadian is renowned for this repertoire and takes a relaxed approach in concert not unlike that of Nicholas McGegan, with the work clearly having been done beforehand. It produced the goods in performance with every element of the huge range of sounds coming from the stage (and from the balcony when a sextet from the choir appeared there during the Ode) pin sharp in execution and individually audible.
Handel was breaking new ground at the time he wrote these pieces, so there was a huge variation in the tonal colours from the early work through to the Music for the Royal Fireworks, with its blazing four trumpets. At the other end of the sonic spectrum, Alison Green put in a big shift on contra-bassoon in that piece, but there were fine instrumental performances all over the platform and across the programme, with chamber organ, harpsichord and theorbo joining the strings and winds, and a crucially-engaged turn as orchestra leader from Michael Gurevich.
Those ingredients each had moments of concentration in the Water Music Suite No 1, as Handel shifts focus to the oboes and then the horns in the opening movements before finding different scoring combinations for the well-known Minuet, the Bouree and the Hornpipe, with the reeds very much on point in its speedy later bars.