French Baroque Played By the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Led by Emmanuelle Haïm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Rameau: Camilla Tilling (soprano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 12.1.2012 (SRT)

Handel: Water Music in D and G
Cantata: Delirio Amoroso
Rameau: Suite from Dardanus

Listening to the SCO tonight reminded me of just what a difference a conductor can make. I’ve heard the SCO on numerous occasions before, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sounding so light-footed, so carefully inflected and, if you’ll forgive the cliché, so French! The reason, of course, is Emmanuelle Haïm. The erstwhile “Ms Dynamite” brings a unique touch of grace to everything she plays: my first experience of her was a memorable Rodelinda at Glyndebourne in 2004 where the notes seemed to explode out of the pit with freshly minted vigour. Haïm is naturally at home in the French Baroque and Rameaus’ Dardanus Suite was a perfect vehicle for her to show off all the tools in her repertory, be it the stylish grace of the overture, the structural rigour of the chaconne or the brilliant percussive displays of the faster movements, though these were perhaps a little overdone at times. She was just as much at home in the music of that great Anglo-German, Handel, as well, though, conducting her own specially curated selection of movements from the Water Music suites. There is a smoothness to her inflection and pointing that is peculiarly French, however: you would never confuse her Handel with Pinnock’s or Hogwood’s for example. She also allowed the players plenty of space for well observed ornamentation in the da capos , lending delicacy and individuality to familiar music.

The orchestra’s response to her was remarkable. The colour of the sound was quite dissimilar to much of their playing, and that was partly due to different textures being available such as guest appearances from a theorbo and, most winningly, a recorder which was played with astonishing virtuosity by Pamela Thorby, enlivening Handel’s textures and lending air to his breezes in Delirio Amoroso. Regular attenders were on exceptional form too, though, with wonderful violin and cello solos in the cantata, vigorous wind work throughout, and trumpets sounding bright as a button at the opening of the Water Music.

The evening was crowned by Camilla Tilling’s star turn in Delirio Amoroso. One of the most versatile sopranos around at the moment, she is blessed with a remarkable voice of outstanding clarity, powerful without lacking beauty. Her ornamentations and runs in Handel’s arias were exceptional, as was her astonishing breath control which enabled her to spin out both the line and the bravura way beyond the expectations of the audience. Yet she never lost the sense of this music as a conversation: even in the passages of the greatest fireworks she spent her time communicating with the others on the platform and creating an example of the finest Handel singing that will stick with me for a very long time. Top marks to everyone involved.

Simon Thompson