“New Beginnings” is the apt title for this year’s London Handel Festival. Returning to live audiences two years after the first lockdown, there’s a feeling of emerging from hibernation. The festival has come out roaring. It has a new artistic director, Gregory Batsleer, and a focus on youth, launching a new partnership with the Coram Foundation, formerly known as the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a governor. This exuberant opening night celebration at St George’s, Hanover Square – Handel’s church – featured the fresh-faced, fresh-voiced National Youth Choir of Great Britain Chamber Choir, as well as a new commission by Anna Clyne

Laurence Cummings
© Anton Sckl

What more celebratory way to kick things off than Zadok the Priest? The Coronation Anthems were Handel's first commissions as a newly naturalised British subject, written for the coronation of King George II in 1727. Handel’s setting of Zadok is justly famous and has been played at every coronation since. The lean strings of the Academy of Ancient Music lacked a little bite in the introduction, but the explosion of joy when the young choir burst in was palpable, even if their ranks were light on tenors and basses. 

Several of the choir were given brief solos in As Pants the Hart, one of Handel’s Chandos Anthems, and they were in fine form in The King Shall Rejoice, another of the Coronation Anthems, to close the evening. In between, Anna Clyne’s In Thy Beauty was given its world premiere, resetting the words of another Coronation Anthem, My Heart is Inditing. Clyne uses Handel’s opening motif, initially for solo soprano – Freya Barker, excellent – against a wordless chorus. A ripple effect runs through the strings and rapier-like trumpets pierce the orchestral fabric. Clyne’s writing for choral forces is very attractive and this new work was warmly welcomed by the packed audience at St George’s. 

There were a few orchestral bangers igniting the programme too. The Music for the Royal Fireworks made a tremendous racket, David Blackadder leading the trumpets in their brassy salvos and a trio of raucous horns whooping it up in La Réjouissance. Plus we were treated to the sight – and sound – of a Baroque contrabassoon towering over the ensemble. Music Director Laurence Cummings nipped across to the chamber organ, borrowed from the Handel House Museum in Brook Street, for the most popular of Handel’s organ concertos, dubbed The Cuckoo and the Nightingale due to the bird motifs in its second movement. Cummings’ impish playing here had a couple of the violinists chuckling. Despite a few intonation problems, the A major concerto grosso from Handel’s Op.6 set was given a suave reading, elegant solos led by Bojan Čičić. A black mark, though, for the festival’s lack of a physical programme with texts and lists of performers. The promised online programme has yet to be located. A single sheet of paper with the running order – inaccurately proofread – is not good enough. 

Anna Starushkevych and the AAM
© John Bowling

The most moving moment of the evening wasn’t originally on the programme. The late addition of the aria “Dopo notte” gave Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych, winner of the festival’s 2012 Handel Singing Competition, a platform to highlight the plight of her country. Wearing a vinók, a traditional flower crown with ribbons, Starushkevych explained that she was singing the aria not as Ariodante, but as a message of strength, gratitude and hope to the people of her country. “After a dark and terrible night, the sun shines more brightly in the sky and fills the earth with joy.” Starushkevych sang it with radiance and terrific agility. I have never seen an entire audience leap to its feet so quickly to signal its support.