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Handel Man

March 27, 2009

I always find it interesting to see how particular performers jibe with particular playwrights, composers or directors. Think Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner. Think Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht. Equally intimate relationships sometimes exist between two artists even when they are divided by hundreds of years and thousands of miles in time and space.

Such is the case for the American countertenor David Daniels with regards to the composer Handel. The passion that Daniels feels for Handel's music was strongly in evidence last night at Herbst Theatre when the countertenor performed a program of works by J. S. Bach and Handel alongside Great Britain's English Concert Baroque music ensemble.

The concert, produced by San Francisco Performances, was a game of two halves. The first was devoted to Bach, the second to Handel. One half will remain in my memory for a long time. You can probably guess which half I'm talking about.

Daniels brought great musicality to his interpretations of such Bach works as "Vernugte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust" (BWV 170), "Qui Sedes" from the Mass in B Minor, "Schlummert ein" (BWV 82) and the famous "Erbame dich" from the Saint Matthew Passion. The last of these was sung sensitively, Daniels' voice interweaving with the solo violin line like the two were extensions of one another. But the English Concert tooks such a machine-like approach to Bach that all the life was drained from the tidy rhythmic lines. Not even Daniels could squeeze a lyrical quality back into the music. There's also something funny about the way in which the singer enunciates the German language. He's all lips and teeth. The vowels sound ungainly in his mouth. "Schlummert" is an odd word at the best of times. Daniels made it sound positively absurd.

Everything changed when the program shifted from German to Italian after intermission. Much more at ease with Handel's Italian arias and a whole lot less mouthy, Daniels let rip. When the countertenor performed the sweet-spiteful aria "Ombra Cara" from Radamisto, the word "vendetta" (revenge) sent chills down my spine. As the program progressed, the music became increasingly showy. Daniels approached the Partenope aria "Furibondo" like a Baroque Elvis, with low-slung knees, gyrating hips and euphoric little circles of his head while reeling through the skittering passagios. And in the "Mad Scene" from Orlando, he swung between manic glee and introverted sadness. Some of the ends of his lines in the quiet sections were barely audible. But the performance overall was riveting.

Daniels' predilection for Handel was such that even the staid English Concert came to life, playing the non-vocal Passacaglia from Radamistowith a warmth of feeling that finally did justice to the group's technical perfection.

The friend who joined me for the concert described Daniels as a "Handel Man." But what I didn't know until last night was the countertenor's particular passion for Italian Handel. "You won't hear him do German or English Handel," my friend, a huge fan of the singer's, told me. "When it comes to Handel, he's very specific about his tastes."


  • I think your friend forgot about his whole CD of English language Handel - "Handel Oratorios". Not much of a fan!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 29, 2009 at 10:30 AM  

  • When I heard David Daniels in Vienna (same program), I was impressed by his totally idiomatic pronounciation of the German language, especially in "Schlummert ein": the vowels in "Süßen Frieden, stille Ruh" (sweet peace, quiet rest) are pure magic. I know what I am talking about, I am a native German speaker.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 29, 2009 at 11:16 AM  

  • I´m sorry, your fan-friend is wrong. Daniels performed in staged productions of Theodora and Saul - "English" Händels both of them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 29, 2009 at 11:31 AM  

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