The opening Galakonzert for this year’s Göttingen International Handel Festival was a great success for a number of reasons – mostly, of course, for the very high quality of the performances. It featured the return of soprano Dominique Labelle, much loved in Göttingen, after a six-year absence. Also playing were the more recently appointed but now equally loved artistic director and conductor Laurence Cummings, along with the magnificent FestspielOrchester Göttingen (FOG).

Conductor and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings © Robert Workman
Conductor and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings
© Robert Workman

The concert featured a nicely balanced programme of works by Telemann, CPE Bach and Handel. The opening piece, Telemann’s Overture in D major for two trumpets, strings and basso continuo, was a great FOG showcase, displaying their sumptuous sound which is nonetheless transparent in the parts. The marriage of the strings and trumpets (the latter played by David Staff and Russell Gilmour) in the internal ouverture was a delight, as was the energy of the “Les Janisssaires” section, the short window with a merrily bubbling bassoon (Rhoda Patrick) and concluding fanfare-ish bourrée.

Labelle’s first item was Handel’s aria “Come nembo che fugge col vento” from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. This early work requires deft agility and Labelle showed she has lost nothing in this regard during her time away from the festival. Her voice is still remarkable for its depth of timbre and its many colours, the strong gleaming high notes and equal power across its range, with perhaps just a little softening of power in the lowest notes.

This was followed by CPE Bach’s Sinfonie in E minor (“Fandango”) from the middle of the 18th century which, compared with the earlier Telemann piece, looks forward to the early Classical period, even bringing to mind Beethoven in some places. It was played with the FOG’s usual élan and attention to detail.

Before the interval, we were granted another Handel aria, this time from much later in his career: “O sleep, why dost they leave me” from Semele. This is a continuo aria, with great work from harpsichord (Cummings), cello (Phoebe Carrai) and theorbo (David Tayler). Labelle opened the piece with a richly toned messa di voce, and invested it with deep longing and superb vocal control.

After the interval, the orchestra performed a very lively rendition of an excerpt from Telemann’s Tafelmusik (Conclusion in E minor) for two flutes, strings, and basso continuo. The flute parts were exquisitely rendered by Kate Clark and Brian Berryman.

The climax of the proceedings was the amazing if little-heard Telemann cantata, Ino. This is the very same Ino we know from Handel’s Semele – the sequel, if you like. Ino was Semele’s sister, and here we find that she has married Athamas (spurned by Semele), but both are still subject to the fury of Juno over the whole Semele affair. The libretto derives from a noted German poet, Karl Wilhelm Ramler, drawing on classical sources; it is just as convoluted as any three hour Baroque opera, but basically it depicts Ino fleeing a bewitched Athamas, throwing herself into the sea with their son and then being transformed into a divine being – or maybe just her retreat into total delusion.

Labelle brought all her considerable interpretive powers to bear on this multi-emotional work. Its opening is highly dramatic: with no overture we are plunged in medias res with Ino declaiming “Wohin? Wo soll ich hin?” A passage of recitative is followed by the first aria demanding fluent coloratura, showing Labelle’s rich, resonant voice at its best, with powerful high notes filling the hall. Another passage of recitative displays Ino’s fear and fury as she prepares to throw herself into the sea, followed by a larghetto of pain at losing her son. At this point the cantata changes its tone, as Ino finds herself alive and (possibly) transfigured, and she sings with relief and happiness. There is a rollicking instrumental break (“Tanz der Tritonen”), after which Ino greets her god-like self, and a final aria of joy – or delirium – concluding with a spectacular cadenza. The second part of this aria is in 6/4 time, which somehow adds to the sense of unreality.

Rousing applause demanded an encore: “Lascia la spina” from Il trionfo demonstrated smooth legato and subtle ornamentation in the da capo.