Tom Sutcliffe relives his musical education and a recent Handel Festival

One gathered that Horace Hawkins, the organist and choirmaster, had been the favourite pupil of Charles-Marie Widor at St Sulpice in Paris. We loved the turn-of-the-century glorificatory French choral music by Widor and Potiron and others that he programmed, all of which was unique to Chichester (and immediately vanished in 1958 when Hawkins retired and was replaced by John Birch, an English smoothie of exactly the same type as Dean Walter Hussey). Hawkie seemed immensely old but very vital, and in and about the Close invariably wore a grey cloak, grey Canterbury cap and cassock matching the grey we all wore under our surplices (to which, of course, we did not graduate until we ceased to be probationers). He expected our attention and competence, and was rewarded with them fully. We were devoted to him and most of his musical choices. Although we respected and even got to like some of the extremely ancient clergy and their wives (such as Canon and Mrs Lowther-Clarke) who were very kind to us, especially at Christmas, Hawkie (as we all called him) effortlessly preserved our primary loyalty to the music which was our work, rather than to the religious seriousness which was the tone of every other aspect of the cathedral in those days before money-making tourism. He even sometimes made jokes at the clergy’s expense. I remember after Dean Duncan-Jones died in office in January 1955, and before Hussey came, Hawkie got frustrated at the slow speed with which Precentor Browne-Wilkinson was getting through things, and with a huge gesture of his right arm and hand leaning out from the organ loft, hilariously pretending to be winding things up. As a child, how could you not love and be loyal to somebody who showed such blissful but good-natured irreverence for the business in which we were all engaged? Hawkie of course always left Eucharist on Sunday before the final hymn which his assistant Anne Sheail played so he could get into the White Horse pub across South Street when it opened at noon.

I spent 18 years of my life in the musical service of the church at Chichester, Hurstpierpoint College, Magdalen College, Oxford, Brompton Oratory, and Westminster Cathedral. I was incredibly lucky and grateful for every bar I sang, but I never thought any of this special, just specialized because one had to be able to do it all and very few could. There were huge gaps in my musical knowledge, but not in my ability to listen to music and respond to it and understand it. How grateful must one be to have so ready and immediate a full response to what music one hears or listens to? I was recently in Göttingen for the Handel Festival, a town whose famous university was founded by our King George II in 1734. The festival was founded by art historian Oskar Hagen in 1920, the same year as the Salzburg Festival, though the Handel Festival has remained infinitely more modest (Hagen was the father of Uta Hagen who created the role of Martha in Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

This year’s opera, Arminio, first performed at Covent Garden in 1737, was a typically adventuresome Handelian effort, full of originality and, very unusually, starting with a duet. Its theme is less the history of the German effort to resist Roman colonization than the warring tension between them and the political opportunity that so fascinated aristocratic operagoers in the Age of Enlightenment. But the musical richness was in every programme I heard, which included two ‘victory’ oratorios celebrating Hanoverian defeat of the revolting Catholic pretenders in 1745, Judas Maccabaeus and Alexander Balus, the latter an even less religiously focussed effort. The African-American tenor Kenneth Tarver, a master of belcanto style who used his words immaculately and is wonderfully expressive, was Judas Maccabaeus with Deanna Breiwick and Sophie Harmsen as superbly matched Israelitish Woman and Man, and bass Joăo Fernandes as Simon and Eupolemux. There was also text by Thomas Morell and, completely new to me, Alexander Balus, sung by a thrilling line-up of young, still largely unknown, soloists, with a regional period instrument orchestra with some thrillingly accomplished young players. Arianna Vendittelli as Cleopatra was irresistibly alluring and persuasive, with perfect and meaningful English delivery. Another Italian soprano, Giulia Bolcato, was perhaps even more delightful as Aspasia in duets with Cleopatra, and of almost greater vocal purity and directness. And William Wallace as the Jewish leader Jonathan is an English tenor with a thrillingly ardent and perfectly managed top who at 29 is clearly on his way. This all in the 18th-century Nikolai-Kirche in the Harz mountains some way north of Göttingen.

Oboes and bassoons from the FOG (Festspielorchester Göttingen) had a lovely late-night programme at the Marien-Kirche of contemporaries of Handel and Bach, especially Zelenka and Fasch—always a very appealing combination with a typically inaudible theorbo adding visual je ne sais quoi! But even more astonishing and wonderful was the playing of recorder virtuoso Giovanni Antonini and his equally virtuosic harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone at the university Aula presided over. Next to a familiar portrait of plump Prinny as regent, they played a fabulous programme of seventeenth and 18th-century material which started with melodious Andrea Falconieri from the early seventeenth century and worked through various changes of instrument (soprano recorder at one point) through early eighteenth century baroque, Mancini and Corelli to Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, Handel and J.S. Bach, including a thrilling performance of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. The harpsichord was two-manual and very fine. It was fascinating to see and hear how Antonini could vary the sound and attack and lyrical flow with not just how he blew, but also with the shape of his mouth. I recall how well David Munrow could play in the 1960s and 1970s, but this was truly astonishing expressiveness on various historic recorders that really take unbridled virtuosity to impress with their full range of timbres and almost avian melodious sweetness.