Proms 36: The Sixteen celebrate the Handel anniversary

Sampson, Ross, The Sixteen/Christophers

Royal Albert Hall, 15 August 2009 5 stars

Carolyn Sampson by Johnny GreigFor the latest installment of Handel's anniversary celebrations Harry Christophers and The Sixteen presented all four Coronation Anthems interspersed with The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, extracts from Semele, Salve Regina and an Organ Concerto in F major. It proved to be a popular choice reflected by the huge numbers in the audience who braved awful weather. This year marks a double celebration for Christophers since it is not only Handel's anniversary, a composer he has a particular affinity for, but also the thirtieth anniversary of his own ensemble, The Sixteen.

Thirty years of performing experience were evident right from the opening piece, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, as Christophers conducted with an obvious joy and passion. The Orchestra sounded surprisingly rich and full in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall which has on different occasions left smaller period bands sounding rather lost. One could argue that with about forty players on stage at one point and thirty singers this sort of power was to be expected but something about their confidence and blend really added an extra mark of excellence to the whole ensemble.

The coronation anthems were well paced and marked by exceedingly clear diction from the singers. The Sixteen's trademark clarity of line and unique blend was particularly noticeable in the excellent singing of My heart is inditing, and it was pleasing that the programme had been constructed to end with that most famous of pieces, Zadok the Priest, which prompted murmurs of approval from the audience as the velvety sound of those opening arpeggios began. However, Harry Christophers has his own take on this much-loved orchestral moment which caused something of a stir; he held back on the grand crescendo opting for a more subtle intensification so that the first chords of the choral entry were more than usually explosive. Looking at the BBC audience feedback on the Proms website this morning I notice it has already upset one purist but last night, in that hall it felt just right.

The real highlight of the evening for me, however, was Carolyn Sampson's solo arias from Semele. I have commented before that Sampson is one of the leading sopranos on her generation in the early music field and in this concert she showed once again what a versatile artist she is. Her first aria, Endless pleasure, endless love was so ravishing that she noticeably inspired the choir to give their finest performance of the evening when they joined in with their chorus and she absolutely stole the show with O ecstasy of happiness!...Myself I shall adore during which Christophers handed her a hand-mirror with which she wittily admired herself from a variety of angles. Not many soloists have her ability to act so naturally in concert situations like this and her vocal agility and sensitivity was greeted with the enthusiastic applause it deserved. Sampson really is the full package, actress, singer and musician and her career is one we should all enjoy following.

A more demure Sampson returned to the stage in the second half of the concert for Handel's beautiful but lesser-known Italianate setting of Salve Regina followed by some impressively nimble playing by Alastair Ross in the Organ Concerto. But despite a stylish rendition this was the one moment in the concert when the size of the venue seemed to get the better of the more subtle moments. Listening again via the BBC's iPlayer I note that this is not such an issue for the broadcast as it was in the hall. It was, however, an amusing experience to listen to Ross play a chamber organ whilst staring at the huge floodlit pipes of the RAH organ! It reminds us there is a very difficult balance to be struck by conductors at these recorded proms when they must cater to the needs of the distant audience as well as the close microphones and I feel that Christophers handled the situation with extreme skill and thoughtfulness. This was an outstanding Proms concert and typical of the high standards routinely set by The Sixteen.

By Ed Breen

Photo: Carolyn Sampson by Johnny Greig

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