Classical music is not cool. Most people who’ve come through secondary school with a love for it are well aware of that, having been frequently reminded of it by their peers. As a result of this, most of us probably couldn’t care less, though I’m sure we all question, when beholding some particularly awesome musical event, the premises on which this schoolyard assumption is based. And yet occasionally, we come across a piece which does seem to justify all the snide comments, all the playful schoolyard banter: a piece which we cannot but recognise as an exemplar of the delightful uncoolness allegedly inherent in a love for classical music. Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea is such a piece, and charmingly so. The first act, in particular, must be in the running for the twee-est music ever written. Its campness is to be wholeheartedly embraced, and was perfectly so in the concert performance it received at St George’s Bristol by La Nuova Musica, a young group of Baroque enthusiasts, who knew exactly how to handle it: with a twinkle in their eyes and a smile playing across their lips.

Members of La Nuova Musica © La Nuova Musica 2012
Members of La Nuova Musica
© La Nuova Musica 2012

Handel composed Acis and Galatea for performance at Cannons Park, and it is very easy to imagine the aristocrats strolling the grounds, thoroughly enjoying and identifying with the carefree music that this first act radiates, as well as its fashionable pastoral theme. The music begins with a spritely Sinfonia, which David Bates, the ensemble’s director, perfectly described as an “arcadian kiss-chase”. It sets the tone for what is, quite simply and deliciously, a ridiculous piece of Baroque pastoral indulgence. After an opening chorus exhorting “the pleasures of the plains”, complete with sustained pedal notes, the beautiful nymph Galatea (Fflur Wyn) hushes the “pretty joyous warbling quire”. She is sad because she cannot find her beloved shepherd Acis, but doesn’t succeed in silencing the bucolic scene, as the piping recorder obbligato attests. This must account for her disappearance, because upon her departure the man himself arrives: he, too, sad, because he, too, has lost his beloved. A wise friend warns him of the pangs love will bring and beseeches him to rejoin the happy throng. Acis won’t give up his hunt for Galatea, though, and wanders off in search for her. But (you guessed it) no sooner does he leave, that Galatea returns, bemoaning the “pains of absent love”. Finally, both are reunited, and the duet “Happy, happy, happy we!” brings the first half to a close.

Despite the innocuousness of the storyline (and who cares about that, really?), there is some truly delightful music in this act, and La Nuova Musica did it justice. The seven-piece band outdid the five singers for vibrancy and vitality, the Sinfonia being particularly lively. The balance of the singers in the opening chorus was slightly off, but one can hardly blame Wyn for this, being the lone soprano pitted against three tenors and a bass all keen to make their equally interesting parts heard. She shone in her solo arias, though, especially in the tricky “As when the dove”, when Handel expects some pretty agile jumps from his singer. Her accuracy was all the more praiseworthy because not helped by the two violinists, who were consistently flat in support of her top notes. They were the only slight tarnish on an otherwise pretty pristine instrumental performance. Unfortunately, Mark Chaundy was less convincing in the role of Acis: his throaty tenor hardly ingratiating itself with the Handelian style.

Things get a little more serious in the second half, at least for Acis and Galatea. The “monster Polyphemus” arrives lusting (as giants do) after the beautiful Nymph. The opening chorus heralds his arrival with an emotive section employing grievous suspensions and then a remarkable passage in which the giant’s musical strides are illustrated by detached chords accompanying separated syllabic phrasing in the choir. James Arthur raged fantastically with his powerful bass voice, and seemed suitably ridiculous when Polyphemus tries his hand at some old-fashioned wooing, backed by some ironic recorder obbligato. After a simply beautiful aria from Julian Forbes as Corydon, with an equally beautiful violin obbligato, Acis pronounces his rage against the giant, and his intention to fight and die to defend his lady and honour. Polyphemus swiftly obliges and crushes Acis beneath a rock, and the chorus mourns before convincing Galatea to exert her divine powers and turn Acis into a fountain. This she does, and though this mightn’t have consoled Acis, no-one else seems to mind, for Handel reserved his most expressive, beautiful music for Galatea’s final murmuring aria and the closing chorus: and La Nuova Musica, their most exquisite moments.

This was an utterly delightful performance of a gem of a piece: it might’ve been uncool, but so much the better.

****1