Breeches, brocade and bonbons

The trio Baroque Encounter play an unusually intimate gig at the Handel House Museum.

“Early music”. Earlier than what? We’ve come a long way from the bearded earnestness of the early period performance revival. There’s a freedom and a flexibility to the music of the 12th to 18th centuries that you just don’t get with the big Romantic repertoire, encouraging and even demanding experimentation. Whether you like your minuets and sarabands served straight up in britches and brocade or prefer something a bit more baroque’n’roll, there’s something to suit everyone.

Sitting in a wood-panelled salon, a series of Restoration worthies staring down at you from gilded frames on the walls, you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself back in Handel’s London. To some extent you’d be right: the meticulously restored Handel House Museum on Brook Street in Mayfair (next door to Jimi Hendrix’s former home) is a world away from the contemporary clatter outside.

Concerts regularly take place in Handel’s recital room, where the composer rehearsed and performed with the operatic greats of his day and once threatened to throw the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window. With a capacity of only 28, performances here are intimate, allowing you to hear this music as the original audiences would have done, in what is in essence a domestic setting. Proximity might dull the acoustic bloom you’d get in a concert hall, but what performers lose in soft focus, they gain in directness and human friction.

Playing on this unusual intimacy, a concert from the trio Baroque Encounter on 29 August invited us to take a musical stroll through London’s pleasure gardens. The group’s counter-tenor, Glenn Kesby, has an unworked simplicity to his sound that is well suited to the more popular repertoire of the 18th century. “The Little Coquette” by John Worgan was arch and appealing, its flightiness grounded by Claire Williams’s stylish accompaniment at the harpsichord, while “The Lass of Richmond Hill” by James Hook had all the freedom of the folk songs that it so closely imitates. Seduction took a more serious turn in “Lady Jane Grey’s Lamentation” by Giordani, its tragedy contradicted by the convulsive Lombardic rhythms.

Lauren Brant, on recorder, paid homage to the master of the house, performing Handel’s “Recorder Sonata in F Major”. A slight tightness to her sound in the larghetto gave way to a lively allegro, with the third movement gaining new colours in the harp-like effect of spread chords on the harpsichord. Among so many musical bonbons, Telemann’s cantatas offered something rather more substantial but even the earnestness of Kesby’s coloratura couldn’t obscure the tongue-in-cheek morality of works that exhort us to drink, gamble and worse, so long as we do so in moderation.

From authenticity in Mayfair to experimentation in Dalston. At the Arcola Theatre between 27 and 31 August, Grimeborn’s Handel Furioso, directed by Max Hoehn, cut through the complexities of warring kings and mistaken identities and did away with most recitative, becoming a simple boy-meets-girl tale played out by two white-faced singers in a minimal set.

Taking the model of the 18th-century pasticcio – an operatic equivalent of the “jukebox” musical – Hoehn used arias from Handel’s operas as well as some of his chamber duets to create this slight, fable-like work. Occasional harmonic lurches (and one unfortunate oboe) aside, the result is artless and engaging, distilling music and emotion down to their essence. The soprano Robyn Allegra Parton (as the girl) and the mezzo Anna Starushkevych (as the boy) found a dramatic sincerity and sweetness that amplified their archetypes with surprising emotional heft.

Some superbly creative accompaniment from Julian Perkins (directing a small period band from the harpsichord) led us from first love to last rites in a tour of some of Handel’s loveliest music. “Caro! Dolce! Amico amplesso” from Poro found the voices writhing among each other with innocent obscenity, while Ariodante’s “Neghittosi” gave Parton scope for musical rage in coloratura that convulsed with fury. Starushkevych failed to find the stillness at the core of “Dove sei, amato bene?”, but in her later “Cara sposa, amante cara” there was a darkening of both vocal colour and intensity, finally showing this sternly beautiful voice at its best.

Early music might be an ambiguous term, but that reflects the range and flexibility of the genre. There’s nothing archaic or precious about music that’s as comfortable stripped back to the basics in Dalston as it is in the Royal Opera House; that can take as much reverence as revolution. With English Touring Opera offering a season of Handel, Monteverdi and Cavalli this autumn and the prospect of an anarchic Rodelinda from Richard Jones at ENO in February, baroque is as contemporary as it has ever been.

“Handel Furioso” is at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 31 October and the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool on 2 November Handel House Museum: handelhouse.org

The opening page of 'Serse' by Handel, displayed at the Handel House Museum. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage