In English Baroque terms, this was a clash of the titans. Refereed by early music devotee Sir Roger Norrington, Handel’s celebrated music to entertain Londoners and accompany King George I on his trip down the Thames contrasted nicely with the epic drama of Purcell’s small-scale operatic masterpiece. And there were more contrasts in the performers too. Rather than the usual period ensembles performing such a programme, it was the turn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to delight Londoners, with repertoire contrasting markedly to, say, Marin Alsop’s contemporary programme with the LPO just a fortnight earlier containing no less than five premieres. The LPO is to be commended for maintaining such broad coverage so bullishly.

Sir Roger Norrington © Manfred Esser
Sir Roger Norrington
© Manfred Esser

Courting a Baroque-sized orchestra, complete with theorbos and harpsichord, and with oboes and bassoon positioned nearest the audience, the affable Norrington took his place on the podium looking relaxed but alert on his swivel chair, and directed the new-look LPO in a clean and stately performance of the first two Suites from Handel’s Water Music. Norrington’s characteristic eye for detail and shape infused the music, and he didn’t miss a trick when opportunities to punch out witty punctuation presented themselves. He seemed to be enjoying the music as much as anyone, and the very fine playing from the LPO resulted in spontaneous applause after the third number in the F major suite, with the horn duo excelling and with strings light and precise throughout (no vibrato, of course). The oboes and bassoon had a whale of a time navigating the intricate Bourrée in the First Suite, and with the addition of two trumpets in Suite no. 2 in D major, we heard the famous Hornpipe performed in suitably regal fashion.

The only slight niggle was over balance, where some of the inner detailing was lost, but this did not detract from the wonderful sense of warmth in the performance amongst all the precision and lightness, the tour de force being Norrington’s masterful control over dynamics and suspended notes emphasising Handel’s marvellous harmonic tensions and showing exactly how it’s done.

There was equal precision and care in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Marie-Claude Chappuis, reuniting with Norrington in this hugely impressive concert performance of the opera, produced a natural and thoroughly convincing portrayal of Dido, suitably “press’d with torment”. Her tone had clarity and feeling, with subtle nuances in her phrasing that varied from the steely defiance of “Away, away” to the pleading vulnerability of “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate” and, of course, her heartbreaking Lament. Benjamin Appl’s Aeneas was slightly less convincing early on, but the turning point was his realisation that he and Dido would have to part, which he delivered as a fine dramatic moment. A lyrical baritone, Appl conveyed lots of meaning, as did the superb Lucy Crowe as Belinda. Belindas over the years have varied considerably, but Crowe excelled in the role with a firmness and purity of tone, and with character in her voice in phrases like “How Godlike is the form he bears” and in her tip-top “Haste, haste to town”.

A special mention must go to Miriam Allan and Martha McLorinan, who were late stand-ins as Second Woman and First Witch, conveying meaningful and confident performances and fitting in with the rest of the cast seamlessly. Edward Grint as the Sorceress was satisfyingly evil, as were the two witches who were deliciously malicious, with strong accurate singing from all three, notably Anna Harvey. Norrington controlled matters masterfully, shaping every phrase and moving on the podium exactly the way he wanted the music to feel, to which the LPO responded faithfully, and the Schütz Choir of London sang with versatility and refinement, serenading, echoing, laughing and cackling, even donating tenor Hugo Hymas to provide the Sailor’s jaunty ditty, and closing proceedings with poignant reflection. I can’t say I’ve experienced a better performance than this, and even the bows at the end, accompanied by music, were done with flair and a casual Norrington flourish.

*****