Koopman’s Handel Invites Controversy

United StatesUnited States Handel: Jay Carter (countertenor), Steven Soph (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass-baritone), Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus (Robert Porco, director), Cleveland Orchestra, Ton Koopman (conductor, continuo) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 9.5.2013 (MSJ)

Handel: Water Music Suite No. 1 in F major
 Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthem No. 1)
Te Deum (“Dettingen”) in D major

In my misspent youth, I strongly preferred Bach to Handel, impressed as I was with the former’s fearless explorations into the depths of musical vision and structure. I was blown away by that sense of solitary communion with the universe. Handel seemed to my naïve ears a bit of a hack, writing in a predictable public style.

Ah, what life can do to one’s perceptions. Though I still love Bach, it now seems to me as if he almost had it easy, taking secure jobs in courts and churches that gave him the elbow room to make his musical searches without interference. In a sense, he wrote in an ivory tower. Now that I have some life under my belt, I realize that the real hero was Handel, battling it out on the front lines, finding ways to slip his powerful insights into pieces designed to grab the attention of a fickle public. Sometimes he did have to do hack work, but often as not, he transformed it into sublime genius. No wonder Beethoven called him “the greatest of us all.”

How enthralling, then, it was to hear Ton Koopman and the Cleveland Orchestra in an all-Handel concert. For a time in the late twentieth century, baroque music became scarce on modern symphony orchestra programs, as that repertory was almost cornered by period instrument groups. But in recent decades, baroque music has been creeping back into the larger concert halls as the pioneers of historically-informed playing (HIP) have begun sharing their approaches with the big bands, against which they once rebelled. First Harnoncourt, then Gardiner and others began a general diaspora of HIP that has reached as far as the new Beethoven cycle Bernard Haitink recorded with the London Symphony a few years back. “Fast, nimble, and lithe” have replaced “ponderous and well-upholstered” in this music.

Koopman has worked closely with the Cleveland Orchestra these last few years as artist in residence, leading two weekends of concerts per season. He has demonstrated how wide the Cleveland Orchestra’s range truly is—on the evidence of this concert, one might think they had been a baroque ensemble devoted to HIP for decades, so brilliant and idiomatic were the performances. The basic orchestral ensemble for the concert was eight first violins, seven second violins, six violas, five cellos, four basses, two oboes, two bassoons, and two horns, replaced by trumpet and drums in the choral works.

Koopman led the first suite from Handel’s Water Music from the harpsichord, playing continuo throughout, though in many places he was really playing catalyst, adding improvised flourishes and countermelodies or rattling percussive chords. The opening was graceful and noble, with less pomp and hauteur than is customary. This was achieved with flowing speed and in-tempo flourishes (instead of being treated as grace notes). The fast section of the first piece was perky and full of energy with vibrato kept to a minimum, allowing the reduced ensemble to ring out, filling Severance Hall with gleaming sound.

Throughout the suite soloists and pairs were marvelous, adding ad libitum embellishments with flair. The horn-led third movement was a virtuoso romp for all, Koopman sculpting dynamics dramatically. Some of the middle dances, particularly the “Air,” were nicely bouncy and eminently danceable, which is a valid consideration in music that was in many ways the high-end of the pop music scene in early 1700s London. The “Bourée” I was not so pleased with, as Koopman shortened its repetitions and yoked its tempo to the following “Hornpipe.” If they were the same kind of dance and were labeled “I” and “II,” then I could see the pairing, but these are two different dances, and I feel that it hurts the character of both to be shoe-horned into one tempo. This force play resulted in the “Bourée” being rushed off its feet, something not at all suggested by its common-time marking. The fact that this has become the new fashion does not impress me. To hear what I think is a much more danceable version, consult the not-very-well-known recording made by Arthur Davison and the Virtuosi of England about 40 years ago. While much of Davison’s performance would seem pompous and plush by modern standards, he nails this bourée by taking it at a danceable speed and applying a little “notes inégales” swing. Suddenly it blooms.

But my biggest contention with Koopman is in the final concertante movement in D minor. First, one has to wonder if this movement was really part of the original music Handel wrote for the giant boat party that King George I held on the Thames River in 1717 (thus, Water Music). Unlike the genial dances and formal fanfares heard elsewhere, this feels more like something borrowed or recycled from a concerto grosso. No tempo indication is given in the score, which has led to—in my opinion—an inexplicable fashion amongst HIP circles for playing it slowly and lyrically. I know of no Handel slow movement like it; layers of counterpoint and drama cry out for brisk speed and dramatic pointing. Again, one has to go back decades to hear it performed that way in early recordings by Boyd Neel, Pierre Boulez (more so his ORTF recording than his later New York Philharmonic version), or the above cited Davison. So, very well, I disagree vehemently with Koopman, though I’d defend to the death his right to present his own view. I do, however, remain convinced that if the notoriously volatile Handel were present for this rendition of this movement, he’d tear off his powdered wig and fling it at the overly gentle conductor!

The first half closed with a rousing performance of Zadok the Priest, the first coronation anthem Handel wrote for King George II, featuring the fifty or so voices of the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus. Koopman pulled no punches here, building up to a rousing speed. If anything, it was arguably a little too precipitous, not letting all the intricate choral passage work land clearly. But it was exhilarating, and the chorus—ringing out bell-like—matched the lean vibrato of the orchestra.

Equally exhilarating was the second half, featuring the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of the Dettingen Te Deum, written in 1743 to celebrate a military victory led by King George II. A quarter-century on from Water Music, this is Handel in his grandest late style, similar to (and in many places melodically echoing) his most famous oratorio, Messiah, written just two years previously. The piece lives at the extremes—everything is either fast, brilliant, and celebratory, or slow and dark—perhaps reflecting Handel’s own legendary volatility. Savoring those peaks and valleys and bringing it all vividly to life, Koopman stood to conduct as he did in Zadok, the harpsichord having been struck from the stage.

The chorus boasted passionate yet fiercely clear enunciation, matching the martial mood of the opening trumpets and drums. Countertenor Jay Carter initially seemed underpowered, but later his voiced opened up more richly. Bass-baritone Klaus Mertens had the lion’s share of the solos, delivering them handsomely but with flexible clarity, particularly in the solemn “Vouchsafe, O Lord.” Steven Soph joined the other two soloists with his ringing tenor for “Thou sittest at the right hand of God,” a glorious trio, delivered with the kind of crystalline blend that can only be achieved when singers rein in the vibrato. The work closed with brilliance and grandeur, in a performance that fully justified its inclusion. Here’s to more Koopman, more baroque, and more healthy disagreement at these concerts in the future!

Mark Sebastian Jordan