Handel’s last oratorio and Puccini in his teens

Festival conductor Paul Spicer looks forward to leading the choirs and orchestras at the Saturday choral concerts.

This year’s festival presents two really varied and exciting choral concerts for us all to enjoy. I have long been a fan of Handel’s ‘Sacred Dramas’ which, for me, underline further the question of why the Messiah is the only major choral work of Handel’s that many people know, perhaps apart from Dixit Dominus. Jephtha is an opera in all but name and plays out a really dramatic scenario which, for all its improbable turns of fortune, is nevertheless something with which we can all relate in its human connections and twists and turns.

The chorus is key to the development and the choruses themselves are mostly very substantial and offer comment on the action at important points. It is very important that we listen to the recitatives which come before the choruses and set up what we are to sing about. This is especially important in the second Act where Iphis’ fate has been apparently sealed and the chorus ’How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees’ shows Handel at his most moving and reflective. The joyful ending after Iphis is given a reprieve, but having to agree to remain a virgin for the rest of her life, is a wonderful release!

This is a major work and a huge undertaking for us all. It is something to really look forward to.

The other concert, including Puccini’s wonderfully tuneful and dramatic Messa di Gloria and Stanford’s beautiful and haunting Songs of the Fleet is a world away from Handel but still tunes into our human sentiments on many levels.

Puccini’s Mass was the outpourings of an eighteen-year-old young man, and where the gaucheness of some of the writing is very apparent for someone who has barely started to learn the finesse of his art, nevertheless, he puts his heart and soul into this music and from the very beginning we can sense the development of his operatic style which will flower so wonderfully as his career develops.

Is it church music, or is it opera?! Well, I don’t think it matters greatly, especially as we are most certainly in concert mode. What is important is that we sing it with all the passion and connection we can muster which is what he would want. It is a terrific work with its massive Gloria and fairly large-scale Credo, but the overall impression is one of complete musical sincerity and is something everyone will enjoy to the full.

This concert sends us all around Europe; before we visit Puccini’s warm, romantic Italy, I shall be handing over the baton to Stephen Scotchmer, to take us to Norway with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no. 1.  Peer Gynt is a wandering poet and outlaw, an endearing good-for-nothing who in a long lifetime travels from Scandinavia to North Africa and back. The four movements are correspondingly varied and colourful, ending with the famous ‘Hall of the Mountain King’. Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet are an old favourite of mine. I love the improbably romantic poetry of Henry Newbolt, making something so beautiful and heroic of the old fleets of Nelson’s time when we know the reality was very different. But Stanford makes wonderful use of the poetry, and especially in the slow movements he achieves something quite remarkable to my mind. The Farewell at the end is truly moving as the mother mourns her dead son but is encouraged to think that ‘Service is sweet for all true life is death – so greet thou well thy dead across the homeless sea and be thou comforted because they died for thee’. It is sentimental to a degree, but Stanford lifts it up well beyond this to make a truly memorable end to this lovely collection of pieces.