Ensemble Marsyas at Castletown House, Co. Kildare on 13 June 2015
Castletown House is a gem of a building, a miniature Georgian palace set within parks and gardens, easily suggesting the bucolic, pastoral sensibilities of a distant age. After Friday’s Universal Applause of Mount Parnassus evoked the courtly festivities of baroque Dublin, this evening Ensemble Marsyas celebrates its surroundings with appropriately pastoral music. It is also an all-Handel programme, consisting of works from the early years of the composer’s career. For director Peter Whelan, a Celbridge native, this concert is something of a homecoming. In his introduction he makes the point that the venue we’re sitting in was an important place in his musical upbringing, and he is clearly delighted to return to perform at this festival.
Handel’s Il Pastor Fido (‘The Faithful Shepherd’) may have been too old-fashioned a story to successfully stage back in 1712, but its Overture – really a concerto grosso – shows how well the young Handel could forge a multi-movement orchestral work. The warm acoustic of the Castletown hall intensifies the ensemble’s sound, bringing out its richly colourful playing all the more. Full of energy and character, the overture’s inner movements become showpieces for some beautiful solos from woodwind players Katharina Speckelsen (oboe) and Carlos Cristobal (bassoon), while the rapid finale features brilliant playing from leader Cecilia Bernadini (violin). Speckelsen also features as soloist in the Oboe Concerto in G minor that follows. Her playing is a joy to hear, set off by smoothly articulated playing in the strings.
The second half follows with the major draw of the evening, Handel’s dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne (‘Apollo and Daphne’). The mythological story, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, shows the god Apollo madly in love with Daphne, who does everything she can to avoid him, finally transforming herself into a laurel tree. A mini-opera in all but name, this 40-minute scene is brought to life with singers Callum Thorpe (bass – Apollo) and Mhairi Lawson (soprano – Dafne). It’s good – and all too rare – to hear a real bass sing music of this period. Thorpe tackles Apollo’s bumpy descent from pompous self-assurance to ardent lover and finally shocked abandonment with poise and sensitivity. His strong voice initially threatens to overpower the room, but this is clearly for effect as he soon scales it back, revealing an agile and expressive instrument. Lawson, too, sings superbly, with a wonderful range of intensity, reflecting the different moods of her role. There is much to enjoy in their interplay.
While this is a concert performance, the singers nevertheless use the space and move through it, Lawson in particular working around and between the instrumental players like a grove of trees. The ensemble players accompany the action with colour, verve and style, brilliantly expressive in the faster passages. The concert as a whole is richly impressive, with fine singing and playing throughout, and we can only hope the ensemble returns again soon.
Handel: Overture, Il Pastor Fido, HWV 8a
Handel: Oboe Concerto in G minor, HWV 287
Handel: Apollo e Dafne, HWV 122
Marsyas Ensemble (Peter Whelan, director), Katharina Speckelsen (oboe), Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Callum Thorpe (bass)