Handel in Hackney review – easy beauty and determined string playing | Classical music

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In Handel’s early 18th-century London, Hackney was a string of growing hamlets and a far cry from the composer’s stomping grounds of Mayfair and the West End. Handel would presumably have been bemused by the artfully curated facial hair (and breathtaking cost of his beloved coffee) in today’s East End clubbing headquarters. But the dank edginess of Village Underground’s converted warehouse space is also some distance from London Handel festival’s usual venues – and I’d guess this was the first ever LHF gig to usher in its audience with bottom-heavy Latin lift music on the sound system.

The programme was a mix of Handel, other early music and contemporary alternative classical, all lightly amplified. The first set was for solo violin: Aisha Orazbayeva competed with passing motorbikes as she performed movements by Bach, Handel and Bassano – all gritty bow-catch and pointillistic counterpoint – bookended by two gently trippy pieces (looped melodies, harmonics, microtones) by Oliver Leith.

Aisha Orazbayeva.
Gritty … Aisha Orazbayeva. Photograph: Ben McKee

Post-interval, soprano Anna Dennis joined string collective 12 Ensemble in their LHF debut. The easy beauty of Dennis’s singing in Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Pianga from Rinaldo is haunting and 12 Ensemble’s performance of Furie Terribili from the same opera is a showcase of ultra-tight, ultra-energetic string playing. The world premiere of Joss Campbell’s electronic treatment of Furie Terribili begins with a comic crash of thunder but is otherwise made of subtler stuff, Dennis’s recorded vocal line splintering amid live string harmonics, the piece’s sound-world shifting beguilingly between baroque and modern, acoustic and electronic. But much of the programme feels monochrome, with Dennis trapped in a bland musical world of melancholic vocalise.

The idea, new LHF director Gregory Batsleer explained, is to take the festival into “spaces that wouldn’t normally hear Handel’s music”. But the reality was a concert that felt like any other – except that the audience stood for two hours and had plastic pint glasses in hand as they listened silently. As a guy standing next to me said to one of his friends during the interval, “I didn’t expect it to be this quiet – it feels like an actual concert”.



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