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Getting to grips with the real Handel

The conductor and harpsichordist introduces her new Handel series for Signum Classics

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Bridget CunninghamWed 19th August 2015

Having always cherished Handel‘s music from conducting Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Semele and Messiah to performing his eight great harpsichord suites, it is an immense pleasure to release a new series of recordings with London Early Opera for Signum Records.

This series is designed to capture poignant moments in Handel’s life, through the full compass of his travels and in doing so offers an insight into influences that inspired his rich lifetime of compositions.

Fortunately today many leading scholars, editors and publishers are working behind the scenes on Handel’s music. As a conductor, I am increasingly aware and delighted that audiences want to learn more about his music as well as enjoy a night out at the opera. Handel’s music is richly deserving of such inquisitive listening and as he himself expressed a desire for audience appreciation after a performance of the Messiah, to Lord Kinnoull, ‘My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.’

I am often asked how my passion for Handel’s music developed so keenly, and my answer is ‘simply from the music itself’. Each performance offers the chance to rediscover Handel’s emotional and exquisite melodic lines and harmonic intrigue. I find myself marvelling at his keyboard writing and how it lies so well under the fingers, and when rehearsing with singers, our whole ensemble can be excited by the melismas and word-painting in vocal lines. Handel’s exceptional music writing pushes singers and players to the limits of their technique without feeling unnecessary as he personally understood each instrument and indeed who he was writing for.

Handel cleverly drew upon the strengths of his particular singers and wrote with individual qualities of the voice in mind, such as Diamante Maria Scarabelli’s high tessitura and Margherita Durastanti’s excellent interval leaps and dramatic pauses. The fingerprints of Handel’s performers can still be detected through the music and that was useful for me in researching and choosing repertoire to match the modern voices in this new series. It has also been inspiring for me to have performed at glorious venues associated with Handel such as the Foundling Museum, St Georges Church, Hanover Square, St Lawrence Church in Little Stanmore, Burlington House and the Handel House Museum, 25 Brook Street, where I performed before it was even open to the public in 2001.

Now, after spending years researching and scouring through manuscripts of operatic scores and conducting Handel’s music in various countries across the world, I wanted to make this new series – as it had become clear to me that there is a universal enjoyment and passion for his music.

As Dr Arbuthnot enthused to Alexander Pope about Handel: ‘Conceive the highest that you can of his ability and they (sic) are much beyond anything you can conceive.’

Recording Handel in Italy with sopranos Sophie and Mary Bevan and baritone Benjamin Bevan has been extremely exciting, especially coming from such a musical family heritage and that this is their first disc together.

Handel, aged 21, embarked on a life-changing, impressionable and influential voyage from Hamburg to Italy, where from 1706, he composed prolifically, staged numerous performances, met other key musicians, art lovers, patrons and cardinals and – in short – had such a creative and inspiring few years exploring the Italian style of music and culture that the whole experience remained with him throughout his compositional life.

Future plans include touring, future recordings and the next disc to be released is Handel at Vauxhall, Vol 1 which recreates a night at the Pleasure Gardens with Handel’s English contemporaries inspired by the publication Vauxhall Gardens by David Coke and Alan Borg [Yale].

Handel in Italy, Vol 1 is available now on Signum Records. Handel in Vauxhall will be released in Spring 2016.