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Music review: Handel the Philanthropist (the English Concert) at the Barbican Hall

17 March 2023

Fiona Hook enjoyed a 1749 concert recreated


THE glitzy benefit concert is nothing new. Handel’s 1749 fund-raiser for the Foundling Hospital’s building programme, splendidly recreated at the Barbican by the English Concert under Harry Bicket, was attended by the then Prince and Princess of Wales, and 1000 other patrons, including “A prodigious concourse of the Nobility and Gentry”.

In front of a slightly less distinguished audience for the Barbican Hall concert “Handel the Philanthropist”, the orchestra started with a nicely raucous Music for the Royal Fireworks, complete with four trumpets and three horns, their bells pointing proudly skywards: great fun, even if Bicket’s tempi were sometimes slightly too fast.

Handel recycled previous musical material for an Anthem For The Foundling Hospital, whose lyrics in fulsome praise of the charitable must have given those who bought the eye-wateringly expensive half-guinea tickets a warm glow. The tenor James Way delivered “Blessed are they that considereth the poor” (sic), in a style that looked back to the 19th-century Handel tradition, combining pleasing tone and clear diction with a slightly swaggering operatic delivery, partnered by a violin section playing aria introductions as if they found them personally delightful.

The sopranos Elena Villalón and Miah Persson blended beautifully in “The people will tell of their wisdom”. It ended with a rather restrained “Hallelujah Chorus”, in which a handful of traditionally minded audience members followed the Prince of Wales’s earlier example and stood up.

In a selection from the oratorio Solomon, the authority of Ann Hallenberg’s eponymous king was slightly marred by her reliance on the score. Miah Persson was a moving First Harlot, renouncing her child rather than see it die; Niamh O’Sullivan, as Second Harlot, hissed “For at least I shall tear thy loved infant from thee”, with splendid wickedness. Elena Villalón’s bright tones and golden gown made her an alluring Queen of Sheba. The Chicago-based Clarion Chorus sounded splendidly English throughout, moving in the pianissimo “Comfort them, O Lord”, and filled with joy in “Praise the Lord through ev’ry state”.

In a modern-day act of philanthropy, the English Concert is putting all its present and future videos of Handel’s music online, free of charge. Blessed are they that considereth the poor and needy.

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