Christopher Purves introduces 'Finest Arias for Base Voice, Vol 2'
One of the reasons for revisiting the Handel treasure trove was that there was a sense of unfinished business in recording our first volume of Handel’s 'Finest Arias'. A number of arias destined for the first disc remained on the '“cutting room floor' due to lack of space, and it had become obvious to us that there was simply a wealth of rare Handel gems that deserved their own time in the limelight.
There were some which jumped out at me and then of course there were others which became the yin to those yangs. Then there was the monstrous cantata Nell’africane selve, some 17 minutes long, a beast of a sing with gigantic leaps from the top of the tenor voice to the bottom of the bass range. It’s this kind of challenge that makes my heart pound and the cussed side of my character scream with joy. The thought of getting inside the characters, the proud yet reduced lion and the ardent lover capitulating in the face of Cupid’s arrows and his lover’s all powerful gaze.
Bringing all this to life and all the while revelling in some of Handel’s most demanding vocal writing is the most exhilarating challenge. Plunging down two octaves before soaring up over two and a half octaves, depicting the leaps and bounds of the lion trying to escape his captivity, is I’m sure one of the reasons this cantata is seldom recorded!
As if that isn’t enough, you are drawn as the singer to the depiction of the ‘jungle’ where the lion lives (I’m not entirely sure that Handel really understood the lion’s natural habitat!) the ululations of the beasts, the hissing of the serpents and the howling in the forests. All meat and drink for the artist who’s happy to indulge his imagination in a similar fashion as Handel had himself. We looked at the content of this cantata and decided that at its core there was that delicious blend of introspection and display that so often characterises Handel’s arias, a chance to add your own colour to an already insanely varied and rich palette and let your artistic bent run riot.
So we searched for arias that were in effect a little more introvert, a little less showy than some of those that featured on the first disc and some arias that brought the instrumentalists to the fore. The duetting of bassoon and violin in the pastiche aria 'È ver che all’amo intorno' is a point in question, where we chose a piece that although still had the voice at the centre, on either side you can hear the duetting and duelling of the solo instruments. In itself this aria is an interesting example of one composer pilfering the work of another, in this case Porpora, and reinventing it with his unparalleled imagination. In microcosm I suppose this is what we singers attempt when we take an aria and try to get under its skin. We attempt to put ourselves in Handel’s shoes, what did he intend here, what does he mean when he takes it in this direction? Having attempted to answer those questions we then have to ask what the character was thinking at any point, how would he inflect this or that, what was he feeling when he said this? And only then can we really get to grips with our own interpretation of the aria and let ourselves the artist leak into the process. Quite a responsibility in many respects but one that I’ve so enjoyed on this disc and the previous one with the peerless Arcangelo and Jonny Cohen at the helm.
‘Gelido in ogni vena’, Cosroe’s wonderfully descriptive aria from the seldom performed Siroe, Re di Persia sets the tone for the disc. It’s introverted yet dramatic depiction of a man distraught at the death of his son and his potential part in it, lures the singer and listener alike to delve into the imaginary world that Handel creates within the first few bars of the introduction. It’s a vivid invitation to open up the dressing up box, don the costume, assume whatever character you see fit and start to indulge your creative instincts to the hilt.
Some of the arias when taken out of their particular context can be treated in a slightly different fashion than in the run of the opera or oratorio. Again that’s where the imagination of the artist comes to the fore and he can invent a new scenario for the character.
Haman’s ‘Turn not, O Queen, they face away’ is a marvellous case in point. On this disc I’ve chosen a pleading almost apologetic quality for the aria, whereas in the full oratorio of Esther, he is scarcely capable of such humility.
I could go on and on, but I do believe it’s your turn to find out for yourselves what all the fuss is about.
'Handel's Finest Arias for Base Voice, Vol 2' is out now on Hyperion. To find out more, please visit: hyperion-records.co.uk