2015–2016 Concert Series: “Handel and His Frenemies”

From The Philadelphia Inquirer


George Frideric Handel made a cameo appearance in the 1994 film Farinelli, and was about the only presence that wasn’t ridiculously romanticized. He swept in and out – irate, impatient, imposing, and fully aware of his superiority to his peers.

That image came to mind Saturday during Tempesta di Mare’s Saturday concert Handel & His Frenemies at the Kimmel Center: Smart, period-instrument performances put his music next to often-referenced but rarely heard composers such as Thomas Arne, Maurice Greene, and John Pepusch with unexpected benefits.

The real-life Handel fought a duel with a fellow harpsichordist, went broke periodically, had nervous breakdowns, endured divas ripping at each other’s clothes onstage, but maintained a consistent output that drew on any musical resource in reach. Helpful but un-opinionated program notes by co-directors Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone left room for listeners to ponder the concert’s implications.

Young Handel performed operas by Reinhard Keiser, whose engaging “Concerto in D” had loose-cannon tendencies (like those stark, stabbing gestures) that seemed to re-surface in Handel’s “Il Pastor Fido” suite (heard later in the concert) though integrated into the music’s fabric in ways that made better musical sense.

In Arne’s “Symphony in D” and Giovanni Bononcini’s “Cello Concerto in F” (with soloist Lisa Terry in tentative form), two out of four movements were worth hearing. Pepusch’s overture to The Begger’s Opera was fascinating for what it wasn’t. Though the opera famously turned the tide away from Handel’s Italian-language operas, the overture started by sounding vaguely Handelian but headed down a self-consciously simplistic road with Anglo-tinged tunes that sound like shrewd marketing rather than anything artistic.

So was Handel an Everest amid foothills? Often. Handel did everything well, but unlike Bach, not equally well. Handel’s “Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 3” was charming but short-winded and a bit generic. But the lesser-known “Il Pastor Fido” suite (drawn from the opera’s dance movements) was a tour de force, each having a sound world of its own. Daringly spare passages had only two flutes and four violins. Or an oboe duet accompanied only by cello and theorbo with tension-generating cross rhythms. The opera’s scenario was flimsy, but Handel seemed more fully engaged by it.

And so was Tempesta. Though the playing always had a polished, plump sound, “Il Pastor Fido” was more incisive with a deeper sense of what the music says. Considering how the Perelman Theater was decked out in microphones, one can hope this concert will join Tempesta’s other recordings on the Chandos label.