Part of the London Handel Festival, this lunchtime offering was billed as ‘Spectacles of the stage, sampled in the salon’. Church rather than salon today, in the lovely setting of St George’s Hanover Square. Handel arias and sonatas were well complemented by music from two of Handel’s British, or adopted British, contemporaries. Nominally Natalie Montakhab’s solo recital, she was quick to introduce fellow performers from Il Bacio; Ann Allen on Baroque woodwind, Liam Byrne on viola da gamba and Ralph Stelzenmüller on harpsichord.

Natalie Montakhab © Natalie Montakhab
Natalie Montakhab
© Natalie Montakhab

The programme opened with three Purcell arias. These were approached in a pleasingly operatic way, with much expression and flexibility of tempo. Montakhab has a bright-toned soprano voice which shines most at the top, and the fast coloratura passages presented no problem at all. In the lower register, she very occasionally sounds a little breathless, but this a small criticism as overall breath control was very good, especially in Sweeter than roses which is challenging in range of pitch and also expression, as well as there being some exceptionally long phrases to sustain.

In Purcell’s mournful The Plaint, the dialogue between voice and oboe was sensitively matched, with identically delicate phrasing from both, Montakhab remaining at a restrained dynamic most of the time and then unleashing a bigger sound at one or two well-chosen points. The vocal ornamentation throughout was generally restrained but I thought always appropriate.

The viola da gamba sonata by Gottfried Finger was a revelation. The instrument is more familiar in a continuo or obligato role, but Liam Byrne showed off its solo capabilities here to good advantage. Finger, we were told, came to London to establish himself and wrote, among some justly forgotten operas, this gem for the gamba, which he himself played.  The range of expression was wider than I expected. Particularly lovely was the middle movement, with a sequence of double-stopped suspensions.

Balancing voice, baroque woodwind, viola da gamba and harpsichord is never straightforward, and very occasionally the softer oboe and recorder, played with equal skill by Ann Allen, lost out to the very present harpsichord sound (not the performers’ fault, simply a function of the instrument and the acoustic), but never for long. Handel’s Recorder Sonata in A minor was a tour de force.

A series of Handel works formed the rest of the programme. Setting the mood for operatic arias performed in a recital is tricky, and it can be alienating to hear a small part of a dramatic piece in a different setting. However Montakhab pitched these very well, so the short, dramatic pieces were well contrasted and drew us in as audience. Aside from one fleeting moment in the Handel cantata, ensemble was excellent. The engagement with the audience in brief introductions to certain pieces was unforced and well judged. Some introduction to the harpsichord solo, beautifully played by Ralph Stelzenmüller, would have been useful, particularly for an audience keen to applaud but uncertain how many movements it was hearing. Stelzenmüller was the busiest in the recital, accompanying almost every number where he was not the soloist, and very sensitively so. It might also have been useful to have a little more said about the arias from Handel’s cantata Mi Palpita il Cor, performed in Italian.

The closing two pieces were the Handel arias “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!” and “As When the Dove” from Acis and Galatea, again with some fantastic coloratura moments from Montakhab and beautifully judged recorder trills setting the scene.

The recital, if anything, was slightly too long for a lunchtime slot, running at over an hour, and perhaps a single aria from the Handel cantata would have been enough. However, the items were well balanced with each performer having the chance to present solo material. Overall one wouldn’t wish away any one of the items in this splendid recital.