The London Handel Players and a Gentleman from Moscow



The London Handel Players, after touring Northern Ireland, Spain, Turkey, Canada and America, have returned to base for the 2023 – 2024 season.  The ensemble specialises in Baroque chamber music and boasts an impressive discography, including four critically acclaimed editions of Handel chamber music: his trio sonatas and his complete works for solo violin.  Since making their debut at St. George’s Hanover Square in 2000, they have gathered momentum in the classical world, making regular appearances at major venues and festivals.  It was my pleasure to hear the group perform their ‘Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments’ at their old haunt, Wigmore Hall.  The programme included a mixture of Telemann, Vivaldi and Bach and when performed was, as advertised, a ‘feast of late-Baroque concertos’.

For those who have not yet set foot in Wigmore – and those for whom it has been a while – some additional texture may be necessary to flesh out the reading experience.  It is a relatively small hall, built in 1901 by the Bechstein firm of piano manufacturers as a showroom for their instruments.  Today, it is one of the world’s leading concert venues, known for its intimacy and crisp acoustics.  The stage sits beneath an ornate cupola depicting the coronation of a golden figure by a burgeoning cloud of light, the soul of music and the essence of harmony respectively.  Provided you don’t rush in at the last minute, there is always a period of waiting before a concert, and the waiting makes you notice such things.  You hear the dim fog of conversation as it curls through the hall, the rustle of paper programmes on people’s laps, the flood of apologies as new arrivals attempt to navigate their way through busy aisles – and then you sit still and look around.  On this occasion, what attracted my attention was the harpsichord towards the back of the stage.  A 1909 reproduction of a 17th-century Flemish instrument, the lid was adorned with a Latin motto: ‘Musica laetitiae comes, medicina dolorum’ (‘the joy of music is the medicine for pain’).  I began to think of the motto as a secret challenge to the musicians.  Can they provide the medicine?  Can their performance, their expression, let us all rise above everyday anxieties and antagonisms for one evening of glorious relief?

The concert began with Telemann’s Concerto in E for flute, oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and strings.  The Andante entry was serene and effortless, gradually pulled upwards by the transcendent fluidity of the flute and oboe d’amore.  It was a smooth sound, leaning on the contrapuntal textures to create a world of quiet intensity.  The ensemble, sensitive to the dialogic quality of Baroque music, achieved an animated legato, constantly turning on one another’s melodies with both intention and poise.  Moving into the Allegro, the warm undulations of the viola d’amore leant the Telemann a soft grace, later balanced by the energy of the Vivace.  The Concerto in E was followed by Vivaldi’s Concerto in F, Il Proteo, ò Il mondo al rovverscio (‘Proteus, or the world turned upside-down’).  In Greek mythology, Proteus is a prophetic sea god.  Able to tell the future but unwilling to do so, he changes shape to avoid the task of divination.  Vivaldi’s concerto, an echo of the myth, is marked by metamorphic undercurrents and filled with a curious, mystical glee.  The dynamic, sparkling quality of the strings brought this narrative out of the shadows.  Suddenly, Proteus was in the concert hall and shifting before me, slipping by those attempting to capture him, playfully elusive.  The final Allegro saw a virtuosic performance by the violin, full of the excitement of the chase.  Bach’s Double Concerto for oboe, violin and strings in C minor was the last treat before the interval, given direction by the intrinsically musical phrasing of the oboe.  The ensuing Allegro, ferocious and full of fluttering trills, did not disappoint.  The round of applause was spontaneous and deserved.

After the interval came the big crowd-pleaser: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.  6 in B flat.  I am in no doubt that many bought their tickets for this alone.  The performance was rich, lively, sonorous, elevated by the vibrant interplay between the cello and the violas.  Telemann’s Concerto in A minor for recorder, viola da gamba and strings continued on this accomplished trajectory, though I feel that the recorder should receive a special mention.  Every line soared.  The sustained purity of sound, even in passages littered with technical difficulties, was admirable.  Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor then drew the evening to a close.  The Allegro was vivacious, moving from climax to climax, barrelling into every orgasmic thrill as the strings rose above, larks ascending.  As soon as the hall went silent, applause once again claimed the space.

Yet there was more to the evening than fabulous music, hence the title of this article.  Every outing brings with it the possibility of a story, the possibility of something unexpected.  Given that I am in possession of such a story, such an unexpected narrative, it would be somewhat wrong of me to withhold it.  By chance, I spent the evening sat next to an elderly gentleman from Moscow whose eccentricities – and they were numerous – could not fail to entertain.  Conversation started slowly at first.  We talked about the programme, his enormous collection of CDs and his life-long investment in music.  He told me that he was a member of all the top London concert venues and extolled the virtues of Bach in comparison with the ‘minor’ talents of Telemann and Vivaldi.  During the concert, he was performatively partisan, deliberately falling asleep ahead of Telemann’s Concerto in E and Concerto in A.  He opened one eye from time to time, waved a hand in the air, muttered Telemann’s name in disdainful tones and then went back to sleep until the next performance of Bach.  Pretending to doze off was obviously one of his favourite parts of old age – such an easy way to express an opinion!  As the evening went on, I learnt more about his past.  He said that he had been in the UK for over 25 years, having fled Moscow after getting into trouble with the KGB.  ‘A long story,’ he muttered.  ‘But I live here now.  I am a citizen.’  A flicker of anxiety, following which he returned to self-assured, bumbling pomposity.  I shall end this fragment without giving any further details, but the point is this: there is always more to an evening if you engage with your surroundings, if you probe.

Before the concert began, a couple sat down in front of me.  The man, middle-aged and dressed in a long, dark coat, turned to some friends and said: ‘There was a big fire in South Kensington yesterday.  I’ve got to this stage in life where I say: if not now, when?’  It amused me that his first thought after such a dramatic event was to buy a ticket to see The London Handel Players, but I will not fault him on his judgement.

Natalie Borenstein © 2024.