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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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