The 50 greatest Handel recordings (2019 update)

Gramophone Wed 22nd May 2019

The definitive guide to the 50 greatest Handel recordings, featuring extracts from the original Gramophone reviews, a playlist, and links to the albums on Apple Music

Welcome to Gramophone's guide to the 50 greatest Handel recordings, which you can explore along with our similar guides to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Chopin. Included here are Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs from Trevor Pinnock, John Butt, Richard Egarr and Roberta Invernizzi, and many more. We have included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 45,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to the Database, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.

All of these lists are, of course, subjective, but every recording here has received the approval of Gramophone's critics and are artistic and musical benchmarks. So if you want to hear Handel performance at its best, this list is the perfect place to start.

You can listen to extracts from each of the recordings in our 'Handel: Great Recordings' playlist on Apple Music, or enjoy the individual albums on Apple Music beneath each review.

Organ Concertos, Op 7

Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr hpd

(Harmonia Mundi)

Richard Egarr and the AAM have prepared their own performing edition of Handel’s Op 7 Organ Concertos, which has involved spontaneously creating ad libitum passages, or choosing other bits of Handel for the slow movements. The rich-sounding forces comprise 18 players, including oboes and bassoons; both their playing and Egarr’s solo contributions are of an impeccably high order.

Taking his cue from Charles Burney’s eyewitness accounts of Handel’s own performances, Egarr takes a bold, improvisatory approach to the concertos. The allegro movements are enlivened by rapid keyboard flourishes, liberal ornamentation (especially during repeats of whole sections) and delightful variants to the basic printed rhythms in the manner of French Baroque composers. Particularly startling is the opening bitonal chord cluster of the A major Concerto, Op 7 No 2; Egarr acknowledges his debt to the 17th/18th-century writer Roger North for this daring harmonic gesture. On a lighter note, listeners will enjoy all the cuckoo calls plus other birdsong motifs that crop up during the Cuckoo and the Nightingale Concerto in F.

Throughout the two CDs, tempi are beautifully judged, with a degree of flexibility and an avoidance of excessive speeds in the fast movements. In the three works for solo harpsichord, Egarr’s calm, measured pacing allows Handel’s music to flow clearly and effortlessly. The opportunity to hear the splendid Chaconne in G, HWV442, is highly rewarding; and, as Egarr points out, it uses the same bass-line and harmonic progression as the first eight bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Egarr’s booklet-notes and a lovely collection of paintings featuring 18th-century London make for a booklet whose excellence matches that of the distinguished music-making. The recording is highly detailed – possibly a bit too close-up for some listeners. Full marks to Egarr for his choice of the 1998 Handel House Museum organ for the concertos; this modern British instrument is a copy of the type of chamber organ known to Handel. This is a superb set from all concerned.

Concerti grossi, Op 3. Sonata a cinque, HWV288

Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr

(Harmonia Mundi)

Richard Egarr suggests that Handel might have had more of a hand in the compilation of Op 3 than hitherto identified. Fresh speculation is a healthy opportunity to reconsider matters but the truly significant aspect of this recording is the new attention brought to Handel’s charming music. It is hard to think of a lovelier moment in all of Handel’s orchestral works than the spellbinding cellos interweaving under a plaintive solo oboe in the Largo of No 2. Likewise, the immense personality of the solo organ runs during the finale of No 6 is a potently precocious display of Handel’s genius at the keyboard. All such moments come across with vitality and passion.

The AAM has never committed Op 3 to disc before: under Egarr they sound as good as ever, perhaps even reinvigorated and a few degrees sparkier. These are for the most part lively performances full of fizzy finesse. There are several fine recordings that find a little more warmth, sentimentality and intimacy in the music, although the energetic brilliance so prominent in the AAM’s crisply athletic playing has its own rewards. The musicians are unanimously immersed in the intricacies of the music, but special mention must be made of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk’s dazzling contribution to the dynamic finale of the ‘Sonata a cinque’ (a sort of violin concerto that Handel presumably composed for Corelli in Rome in about 1707).

Concerti grossi, Op 6

Avison Ensemble / Pavlo Beznosiuk vn

(Linn Records)

The Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble, under the experienced direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, ranks alongside the best for musicianship, taste and style. It’s constituted on a smaller scale than Handel’s orchestra would have been, especially in its lower instruments; also there are no bassoons or lute in the continuo group, and only one harpsichord instead of Handel’s usual two. This is no different to other ‘historically informed’ recordings of Op 6 and need not be considered an obstacle to enjoyment. The optional oboe parts provided by Handel for a few of the concertos are omitted reasonably here.

Beznosiuk is an excellent judge of textures and tempi, and his leadership of the concertino group is authoritative and nuanced. Softly balanced cadences throughout the set are highly effective, and in fast music the interplay between concertino and ripienists is impeccable. The gutsier forthright music is played crisply and sweetly.

The music-making rarely veers towards becoming precious: phrases in the opening Largo of No 7 persistently taper off and diminish the lyrical pull of Handel’s writing, and, in the same concerto, the exclusion of harpsichord in favour of a barely audible organ seems odd considering the trouble Handel took over supplying detailed figured bass; the reduced vivacity also stifles the wittiness of the concluding Hornpipe. The concluding Gigue of No 9 is controlled and deliberate, where one might have hoped for swagger and panache. However, in the Tenth Concerto, the introspective melancholy of the Lento and the sudden mood-swings of the penultimate Allegro are impressive. No 11 has exuberance in its opening Andante larghetto, e staccato and its finale is thrillingly fleet-footed. The Avison Ensemble’s set may well remain rewarding long after the novelties of more precocious approaches have faded.

Water Music

Simon Standage, Elizabeth Wilcock vns The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock hpd

(Archiv)

It’s unlikely that George I ever witnessed performances that live up to this one. They are sparkling, tempi are well judged and there’s a truly majestic sweep to the opening F major French overture. That gets things off to a fine start but what follows is no less compelling, with some notably fine woodwind-playing.

In the D major music it’s the brass department that steals the show and here, horns and trumpets acquit themselves with distinction. Archiv has achieved a particularly satisfying sound in which all strands of the orchestral texture can be heard with clarity. In this suite the ceremonial atmosphere comes over particularly well, with resonant brass-playing complemented by crisply articulated oboes.

The G major pieces are quite different from those in the previous groups, being lighter in texture and more closely dance-orientated. They are among the most engaging in the Water Music and especially, perhaps, the two little ‘country dances’, the boisterous character of which Pinnock captures nicely.

Music for the Royal Fireworks. Concerti per due cori, HWV332-334

Ensemble Zefiro / Alfredo Bernardini

(Arcana)

The Italian ensemble Zefiro, directed by oboist Alfredo Bernardini, specialise in 18th-century music that gives prominence towards wind instruments. This lends itself to theMusic for the Royal Fireworks. Zefiro play the grand Overture with the perfect synthesis of splendour and dance-like charisma (too many versions possess too little of the latter). ‘La Réjouissance’ trips along lightly without a hint of clumsiness, but still has ample juicy magnificence. Theis zesty and fluid performance is a welcome change from stodgy readings in which everything is hammered home mercilessly. Zefiro bring a marvellous sense of light and shade to this music. Maybe Bernardini’s sparkling and communicative approach would have been too subtle for the great British outdoors in 1749 but it is curious that this beautifully engineered recording was made outside in the cloisters of a former Jesuit college in Sicily.

Zefiro also perform all three of the Concerti per due cori (1747-48) that Handel arranged for orchestra and two ‘choirs’ of woodwind and brass. These were intended as entr’actes in oratorio concerts, and it is fun to play ‘name that tune’. These shapely performances are phrased and paced to perfection, and exploit an enjoyable range of instrumental colours (whether oboe trios or bucolic horns, almost everything here feels right). This is one of the most enjoyable discs of Handel’s orchestral music in a long time.

Solo Sonatas, Op 1

Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Brown fl/rec Frank de Bruine ob Pavlo Beznosiuk vnRichard Egarr hpd

(Harmonia Mundi)

John Walsh senior’s compilation of Handel’s sonatas for solo instrument and basso continuo (first printed c1730 and retrospectively known as Op 1) is a horrible mess from a scholarly perspective. Walsh cobbled together the collection, often printing sonatas for the wrong instrument, in the wrong key, or with some wrong movements; some sonatas are clearly not even composed by Handel. In his booklet essay, Richard Egarr does an entertaining job of conveying the confusing history and contents of ‘Op 1’.

Happily, there can be few qualms about the assured music-making. Rubato in slow movements sometimes disturbs the rhythmic pulse of Handel’s writing but otherwise the playing of the three principals of the Academy of Ancient Music sparkles, charms and soothes. Rachel Brown’s recorder-playing is sweetly elegiac in leisurely music, and subtle yet playful in quicker movements (the conclusion of HWV369); likewise, Brown’s flute-playing is gently conversational, and the unison opening of the Allegro in HWV363b is typical of the impressive understanding between Egarr and his soloists. Pavlo Beznosiuk’s contributions are by turns tender and refined. The violinist receives the four sonatas that were clearly not by Handel but plays them gracefully enough for issues of attribution to be temporarily forgotten. Frank de Bruine’s fluent oboe-playing is a particular delight. Egarr has dispensed with cello doubling the bass-line of the keyboard accompaniments; his harpsichord realisations give sensitive support to the soloist in the limelight. The occasional flamboyant keyboard passages have plenty of crispness and character but are light enough to avoid dogmatically forcing the soloists to fight for attention.

Trio Sonatas – Op 2 HWV386-91; Op 5 HWV396-402

Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Brown fl/rec Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rodolfo Richter vns Joseph Crouch vc) / Richard Egarr hpd

(Harmonia Mundi)

The Academy of Ancient Music’s project to record all of Handel’s works with opus numbers reaches its completion with this double-bill of 13 trio sonatas. Most are played by two violins (Pavlo Beznosiuk and Rodolfo Richter) and basso continuo (Joseph Crouch and Richard Egarr). The Op 2 set features two sonatas that specify slightly different scoring: flute in HWV386 and recorder in HWV389 (both played by Rachel Brown).

The interplay between the AAM is Baroque chamber-playing of the very highest order: sincerely conversational, emotive and finely nuanced. Egarr and Crouch are an outstanding continuo team, providing attentive yet uncluttered support to the two upper instruments. Brown and Beznosiuk play together with touching eloquence in the Largoof HWV386 and excel in the jaunty jig that concludes HWV389. Beznosiuk and Richter interweave to gorgeous effect in the Largo of HWV387. On a few occasions the slower music could perhaps have been trusted to play itself with a more literal rhythmical pulse, and sometimes things seem precious if compared to the best alternative recordings, but of course this may also be an unavoidable consequence of listening to an entire collection of works that were never designed by the composer to be sampled together in one long sitting.

Flute Sonatas

Barthold Kuijken fl Wieland Kuijken va da gamba Robert Kohnen hpd

(Accent)

In this recording of solo flute sonatas, Barthold Kuijken plays pieces unquestionably by Handel as well as others over which doubt concerning his authorship has been cast in varying degrees. Certainly not all the pieces here were conceived for transverse flute – there are earlier versions of HWV363b and 367b, for example, for oboe and treble recorder, respectively; but we can well imagine that in Handel’s day most, if not all, of these delightful sonatas were regarded among instrumentalists as more-or-less common property. Barthold Kuijken, with his eldest brother Wieland and Robert Kohnen, gives graceful and stylish performances. Kuijken is skilful in matters of ornamentation and is often adventurous, though invariably within the bounds of good taste. Dance movements are brisk and sprightly though he’s careful to preserve their poise, and phrases are crisply articulated. This is of especial benefit to movements such as the lively Vivace of the B minor Sonata (HWV367b) which can proceed rather aimlessly when too legato an approach is favoured; and the virtuosity of these players pays off in the Presto (Furioso) movement that follows. In short, this is a delightful disc which should please both Handelians and most lovers of Baroque chamber music.

Recorder Sonatas

Pamela Thorby rec Richard Egarr hpd/org

(Linn Records)

Pamela Thorby, a regular member of the Palladian Ensemble, demonstrates versatility and virtuosity beyond question and is imaginatively accompanied by Richard Egarr, who also contributes a sparkling account of the Harpsichord Suite in E major. The recording was made from facsimiles of the autograph manuscripts, and the performances are commensurately vivid and immediate. One feels constantly gripped by the music, as if every single note matters.

There’s no compulsive need for a cello on the basso continuo part, and on this occasion Thorby and Egarr manage perfectly well without one. Egarr uses a chamber organ on some of the sonatas, and although it’s not historically likely in Handel’s chamber sonatas, its musical effect is pleasing, and increases textural variety while removing the threat of monotony across 74 minutes of intense brilliance.

Keyboard Suites – in F; in D minor; in E. Chaconne in G

Murray Perahia pf 

(Sony Classical)

In his projection of line, mass and colour, Perahia makes intelligent acknowledgement of the fact that none of this is piano music, but when it comes to communicating the forceful effects and the brilliance and readiness of finger for which these two great player-composers were renowned, inhibitions are thrown to the wind. Good! Nothing a pianist does in the Harmonious Blacksmith Variations in Handel’s E major Suite or the Air and Variations of the D minor Suite could surpass in vivacity and cumulative excitement what the expert harpsichordist commands, and you could say the same of Scarlatti’s D major Sonata, Kk29, but Perahia is extraordinarily successful in translating these with the daredevil ‘edge’ they must have. Faster and yet faster! In the Handel (more than in the Scarlatti) his velocity may strike you as overdone but one can see the sense of it. It’s quite big playing throughout, yet not inflated. Admirable is the way the piano is addressed, with the keys touched rather than struck, and a sense conveyed that the music is coming to us through the tips of the fingers rather than the hammers of the instrument. While producing streams of beautifully moulded and inflected sound, Perahia is a wizard at making you forget the percussive nature of the apparatus. There are movements in the Handel where the musical qualities are dependent on instrumental sound, or contrasts of sound, which the piano just can’t convincingly imitate. And in some of the Scarlatti one might have reservations about Perahia’s tendency to idealise, to soften outlines and to make the bite less incisive.

Dixit Dominus. Saeviat tellus. Salve regina. Laudate pueri

Annick Massis sop Magdalena Kožená mez Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre; Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski

(Archiv)

These pieces, written in Handel’s early twenties, embody a kind of excitement and freedom, and a richness of ideas, that come from his contact with a different tradition and a sudden realisation that the musical world was larger and less constricted than he had imagined, tucked away in provincial middle and north Germany. You can hear him stretching his musical wings in this music, and it certainly doesn’t fail to take off in these very lively performances. The quickish tempi habitually favoured by Marc Minkowski are by no means out of place here. The Saeviat tellus, although little recorded, is pretty familiar music, as Handel recycled most of it, notably the brilliant opening number in Apollo e Dafne and the lovely ‘O nox dulcis’ in Agrippina. This is a solo motet, as too is the Salve regina, notable for the expressive vocal leaps and chromatic writing in the ‘Ad te clamamus’ and the solo organ and string-writing in the ‘Eia ergo’ that follows. Laudate pueri, which uses a choir, is another fresh and energetic piece: the choir of the Musiciens du Louvre do their pieces in rousing fashion, and there’s some happy oboe-playing, as well as fine singing from Kožená earlier on, in particular in the hugely spirited ‘Excelsus super omnes’. The biggest item is the Dixit Dominus, where the choir sings very crisply. The illustrative settings of ‘ruinas’ tumbling down through the registers, and the ‘conquassabit’ that follows, are truly exciting; and the long closing chorus is done with due weight at quite a measured pace. These splendid performances truly capture the spirit of these marvellous pieces. 

Coronation Anthems

The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

(Coro)

There are plenty of very good recordings of these anthems but this new one leaps straight towards the top of the heap (those preferring to hear boy trebles might already admire the excellent version by King’s College, Cambridge, under Cleobury, above).

We have come selfishly to expect reliability, stylishness and honest fine musicianship from Harry Christophers, his singers and instrumentalists. Yet these fresh, spontaneous and vivacious performances are revelatory. Not only is the choral singing wonderfully clear, perfectly enunciated, beautifully phrased and impeccably tuned, but also the orchestral playing – an aspect too often relegated to auto-pilot in this repertoire – is brilliantly alert, bold and lyrical. Zadok the Priest never fails to make a strong impression even in average performances (and The Sixteen’s expertly judged reading is anything but average), but the special quality of this disc is that the other three lesser-known anthems also receive performances that allow them to shine just as brightly as the most famous (and shortest) anthem. My heart is inditing is radiantly performed (‘The King shall have pleasure in her beauty’ is gorgeously shaped), The King shall rejoice is splendidly poised and paced, and the first part of Let thy hand be strengthened conveys the perfect juxtaposition of forthrightness and elegance. Christophers’s sure direction locks on to the musical interest and richness of each section in the longer anthems (some other good versions rely on good openings and grand conclusions but the bits in between sometimes get a bit lost). Coupled with a sparkling account of the Organ Concerto Op 4 No 4 (superbly played by Alastair Ross, and with a magnificent choral ‘Alleluia’ finale created for the 1735 revival of Athalia), a couple of orchestral interludes and the last chorus of Messiah, the judicious programme avoids the overkill factor one sometimes encounters when all four anthems are heard consecutively.

Donald Burrows’s booklet-note is ideally detailed and accessible, and overall this disc ranks as The Sixteen’s most exciting achievement in its impressive Handel discography.

Italian Cantatas, Vols 1-7

Sols incl Roberta Invernizzi, Emanuela Galli, Nuria Rial, Maria Grazia Schiavo sops La Risonanza / Fabio Bonizzoni hpd

(Glossa)

Volumes only available seperately

La Risonanza’s theatrically coloured playing has raised the performance standard for Handel’s Italian cantatas. Bonizzoni’s refreshing direction is entirely devoid of the coolly dispatched detachment or mannered feyness often found in this repertoire. This lovingly prepared series promises to be of the utmost importance to Handel lovers.

Recitatives are performed with perfect poetic clarity and dramatic timing. Bonizzoni’s Italian ensemble astutely diagnoses and communicates the Affekt of each movement in some of the youthful Handel’s most freely imaginative music. The balance between instruments is consistently fine, warm and lyrical. In particular, Bonizzoni has the admirable knack of conveying the strong rhetorical elements in Handel’s vivacious music, and the performances are beautifully executed with subtlety and charm.

This is an essential series from La Risonanza, whose project is among the most rewarding Handelian discographic undertakings of recent years.

Italian Cantatas

Sabine Devieilhe sop Léa Desandre mez Le Concert d'Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm

(Erato)

The Arcadia evoked in Handel’s Italian cantatas can be a pretty cruel and cynical place, especially if you’re an amorous swain. Time and again the assorted Tirsis, Filenos and Dalisos pine in vain for their heartless Amarillis and Cloris. Aminta e Fillide – an unstaged miniature opera for two voices – is a rare case where the man gets lucky. Having determinedly set herself against Cupid’s wiles, the shepherdess Fillide is finally won over by the shepherd Aminta’s sheer constancy. Here, for once, Arcadia lives up to its billing.

Heard here in the expanded version Handel prepared for performance in the Marquis Ruspoli’s sumptuous gardens in July 1708, Aminta e Fillide is one of the most enticing, melodically piquant works from his Italian years. As with so many of his Italian cantatas, Handel lovers coming to Aminta e Fillide for the first time are likely to have a pleasurable sense of déjà entendu. Never one to waste a good idea, he was quick to recycle many of the cantata’s arias, first in his Venice opera Agrippina, then in his early London works. Aminta’s lament ‘Se vago rio’, hovering hauntingly between major and minor, became the Sirens’ Song in Rinaldo, while Fillide’s blissful final ‘Non si può dar un cor’ morphed into a pastoral aria in the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.

Handel composed Aminta e Fillide for two sopranos, one of whom was the young Margherita Durastanti, Ruspoli’s house singer whose association with Handel endured for over a quarter of a century – easily a record. Previous recordings of this delectable work have likewise used a pair of sopranos, notably Gillian Fisher and Patrizia Kwella in the recording directed by Denys Darlow (Hyperion, 12/84), and Nuria Rial and Grazia Schiavo with La Risonanza (Glossa, 12/08). Even allowing for the inevitable lure of novelty, neither of those versions quite matches the vocal lustre and theatrical flair of this Erato recording, cast with a soprano and mezzo. Both singers have unblemished voices of beautiful quality: Sabine Devieilhe, as Aminta, pellucid and free-soaring, Lea Desandre with a dark flare in her high mezzo. They contrast more sharply than their counterparts on the rival recordings, yet blend exquisitely in the final duet in praise of compassion and fidelity.

From Aminta’s increasingly desperate plea to the fleeing Fillide, ‘Fermati, non fuggir’, Devieilhe and Desandre trace a riveting emotional journey, capturing every nuance in music and poetry without exaggeration or gratuitous ‘effects’. They interact vividly in recitative, and in their arias strike an ideal balance between refinement and dramatic intensity. A shift of sentiment in the ‘B’ section of an aria is always a cue for a new vocal colour, while in the da capos both singers use ornamentation to heighten the expression rather than merely for display. Outstanding in a succession of vocal highlights are Desandre’s capricious ‘Fu scherzo, fu gioco’ as she blithely denounces Cupid, and Devieilhe’s unearthly floated line in ‘Se vago rio’.

All the while the players of Le Concert d’Astrée, under Emmanuelle Haïm’s animating direction, are far more than mere accompanists, not least in the gusto with which they second Aminta’s avowal of eternal fidelity in ‘A dispetto di sorte crudel’. Playing words as well as tones, the crucial cello continuo is always acutely alive to singers and text.

Moving from pastoral to tragedy, each singer gets her own, searing solo cantata, separated by a light-footed performance of Handel’s B minor Trio Sonata that stresses the vocal nature of its inspiration. With her limpid timbre and grace of line and ornament, Sabine Devieilhe touchingly embodies the abandoned Armida’s vulnerability and pathos. Her sublime final siciliano emerges as a true catharsis, with solo violin as an agent of consolation. Less predictably, perhaps, Devieilhe summons the Furies with vehement attack and a cutting edge to her tone, abetted by seething, scything strings.

With a comparably brilliant coloratura technique, Lea Desandre is just as thrilling in Handel’s more flamboyant invocation to the Furies in the continuo-accompanied La Lucrezia, most violent and dissonant of all his Italian cantatas. In symbiotic partnership with Atsushi Sakaï’s cello, she spins a pure and eloquent line in her two grieving arias; and with subtle control of vibrato she movingly conveys a sense of Lucretia’s ebbing life in the arioso ‘Già nel seno’, before rousing herself for a final savage denunciation of Tarquinius. Reviewers are paid partly to look for trouble. There simply isn’t any, in a disc that even amid fierce competition is a Handelian winner.

Chandos Anthems

Emma Kirkby sop Iestyn Davies counterten James Gilchrist ten Neal Davies bass Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music / Stephen Layton

(Hyperion) 

Here are three of the 11 so-called Chandos Anthems composed for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon (from 1719 the First Duke of Chandos). Handel’s music was tailor-made for fewer performers than those featured here. Nevertheless, the 40 members of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, sing with flexibility and lightness. The opening chorus of O praise the Lord with one consent is crisply articulate and lightly shaped, and consonants are attacked with voracity. Most of the choral contributions have sweetness and delicacy. Stephen Layton lets the performers off the leash a little in the final pealing ‘Alleluia’ sections of each anthem, and in some dynamic passages of Let God arise, based on Dixit Dominus. The Academy of Ancient Music’s playing is often understated, and the introductory sonatas of Let God arise and My song shall be alway feature convivial oboe solos played by Katharina Spreckelsen. The four illustrious soloists excel in numerous short movements. Iestyn Davies navigates some difficult low passages in ‘Praise him, all ye that in his house’ (HWV254) without traces of strain. Neal Davies is authoritative, James Gilchrist is on fine dramatic form in ‘Like as the smoke vanisheth’ (HWV256a), and Emma Kirkby shows her stylistic intelligence and masterful communication of text in the radiant opening of HWV252. It is enjoyable to hear some of Handel’s lesser-known and more intimate English church music performed with such elegant restraint and skill.

 

Utrecht Te Deum. Utrecht Jubilate

Nicki Kennedy sop William Towers counterten Wolfram Lattke, Julian Podger tens Peter Harvey bass Netherlands Bach Society / Jos van Veldhoven

(Channel Classics)

The Treaty of Utrecht concluded the War of Spanish Succession in 1713. Its terms were agreed principally between the British and the opposing French, but this caused disaffection among Britain’s German allies, including the Elector of Hanover (soon to be George I). The Elector was also disgruntled that his Kapellmeister Handel, absent and pursuing lucrative freelance jobs in London, composed a large-scale Te Deum and Jubilate for the Service of Thanksgiving held in Wren’s recently -completed St Paul’s Cathedral.

This new recording by the Netherlands Bach Society has been produced in collaboration with the Treaty of Utrecht Foundation, as the city gears up towards the tercentenary commemoration in 2013 of ‘the first peace achieved through diplomacy’. Jos van Veldhoven’s excellent Dutch musicians are joined by a team of mostly English soloists. ‘To thee all angels cry aloud’ is sung with tense drama by the incisive chorus, Julian Podger and William Towers. ‘When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man’ has sensitive contributions from oboist Michael Niesemann and high tenor Wolfram Lattke, and the accompaniment of ‘We believe that thou shalt come’ (an adaptation of ‘De torrente’ from Dixit Dominus) is played gently by the strings and flautist Marten Root. The Netherlands Bach Society fires on all cylinders.

The programme concludes with William Croft’s ode With Noise of Cannon (1713). Performed at Oxford, this partly commemorated the Peace Treaty but also supported the Master of the Chapel Royal’s obtaining of a doctorate. Croft had been a chorister under Purcell and Blow; the stylistic link between Croft’s forbears and the newcomer Handel is manifest in charismatic details such as agile trumpets and echoing dance-like strings in the overture, and the tender duet ‘Peace is the Song’ (sung finely by Peter Harvey and William Towers). As one expects from Channel Classics, the superb sound engineering and the artistic integrity of the project are second to none.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato

Patrizia Kwella, Marie McLaughlin, Jennifer Smith sops Michael Ginn treb Maldwyn Davies, Martyn Hill tens Stephen Varcoe bar Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(Erato)

Recorded 1980

The score of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is presented here virtually complete. The soprano aria ‘But O, sad virgin’ is omitted, which, if you look at the marvellous opening for two cellos, seems savage indeed, but the music does rather lose its way in the long decorative passages for both voice and instruments, and its absence need not be regretted. The band is small and so is the superbly alert chorus. Playing and singing constantly delight by their delicacy. The three soprano soloists sound poised and clean-cut. Jennifer Smith’s high notes are an especial joy. Handel wanted a boy treble for two arias and presumably knew that their words were never very clear; this one produces some pretty sounds. The succession of charming miniatures is interrupted in the middle of Part 2 by more substantial items and a blaze of brilliant coloratura from several soloists. Martyn Hill’s ‘These delights’ is triumphantly good, and the choral singing is excitingly precise. The final chorus in Part 2, a fugue with four subjects, is sublime, but he did not bother himself unduly with the final chorus in Part 3. But in general this is very likeable music, its charm, conciseness and emphasis on word-painting unlike anything else in Handel. The sound quality is very good.

Acis and Galatea

Sols incl Sophie Daneman, Paul Agnew, Alan Ewing, Francois Piolino; Les Arts Florissants / William Christie

(Erato)

In the last few years William Christie has shown himself an accomplished Handelian, and this new recording of Acis and Galatea – of which there are surprisingly few versions, especially good ones, on the Gramophone Database, is warmly welcome. It is good to hear this evergreen work, among Handel’s very greatest, approached from outside the English tradition and accorded the same kind of refinement and interpretative intelligence that Christie has brought to Charpentier and Lully. He has elected to give a ‘chamber version’ of the work, that is, with forces akin to those Handel used for his original Cannons performances: probably five singers and between seven and a dozen instrumentalists (Christie actually has a couple of auxiliary tenors, which is understandable: the ensembles call for just one soprano, three tenors – one possibly a countertenor – and a bass). He does not however follow the original Cannons text, adding a choral ‘Happy we’ after the duet, and assigning the role of Damon to a soprano: these changes are not without Handelian authority, but it comes from his 1739 revival, which embodied other departures and used much larger forces. Never mind: there is nothing that any modern conductor would do that is half as shocking as the violences that Handel himself did to Acis on some of its revivals – and that should mute purist complaint.

Christie strongly emphasizes the work’s central division. He adopts rather speedy tempos throughout Act 1 (that is, up to ‘Happy we’), which is concerned with pastoral love: Acis’s ‘Where shall I seek’ and Damon’s ‘Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?’ don’t seem, respectively, like Larghetto and Andante, but the urgency and the joy of the lovers’ mutual desire is strongly caught. In Act 2, where Polyphemus’s shadow falls over their love, the sparkle and vitality give way to the pathetic and the elegiac. Christie’s tempos here are steady, and his shaping of the act seems to me something of a departure: its climaxes here come not in ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’ (when Acis is killed) and ‘Heart, the seat of soft delight’ (when he is immortalized as a river) – arguably the most powerful musical numbers – but in the ensembles, ‘Mourn, all ye Muses!’ and ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’, where the sustained, refined, gentle singing of Christie’s ensemble lends the music an emotional weight that it does not usually achieve (enhanced in ‘Must I my Acis’ by the preservation of the slowish tempo at the point, ‘Cease, Galatea, cease to grieve’, where most conductors press forward). There are other, mostly rather smaller, points where Christie does new and different things, and I won’t pretend I like all of them (examples are the horrid choral trill in ‘Oh the pleasure of the plains!’, at 3'31'', and the top B flat a little later; the added orchestral coda in ‘Happy we’; the acceleration during ‘Wretched lovers’, at 3'26''; or least of all the substitution of watery recorder for incisive oboe in ‘Would you gain the tender creature’). Christie’s orchestra is evidently one-to-a-part, as Handel’s may have been: this seems to produce a slightly oboe-heavy balance in some items, and in the lightly scored pieces – such as ‘Would you gain’ – the continuo line seems overweighted.

The opening scenes, then, are done more lustily, in two senses, than usual. The choral opening is remarkably hearty and robust (‘free and gay’, as they sing, in the traditional sense of the word.) Sophie Daneman sings Galatea with something more than stylized pastoral sensuality: there is real intensity in her airs, with a pretty warbling recorder, very chirrupy, and sharply moulded phrasing, and particular sensuality in ‘As when the dove’. If her ‘Heart, the seat’, at the end, seems to carry rather less emotional weight, that is part of the overall reading of the work. Paul Agnew makes an elegant Acis in Act 1, with an eager ‘Where shall I seek’ and ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ done with quiet passion. ‘Love sounds th’alarm’, later, is lively but not quite stirring. Patricia Petibon’s Damon is prettily sung, with a nice ring to the voice, in Act 1, but her Act 2 air, ‘Consider, fond shepherd’, taken rather slowly, is marred by uncertainty in her English pronunciation and in her command of idiom. Joseph Cornwell’s single air, as Coridon, with recorder, is not specially interestingly done. I very much relished Alan Ewing’s Polyphemus, done with spirit and humour in a well-focused, firm-edged voice and articulated with precision.

Acis and Galatea has not fared particularly well on record. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s version made in 1976 long held the field, and to some extent still does, although Robert King’s smaller-scale reading has many virtues too. Christie’s new version may not be everyone’s answer but it is a polished and strongly characterized performance, finely recorded, and is certainly the first I would urge anyone to try.

Alexander’s Feast. Organ Concerto, Op 4 No 1. Harp Concerto, Op 4 No 6

Nancy Argenta sop Ian Partridge ten Michael George bass Paul Nicholson org Andrew Lawrence-King hp The Sixteen; Symphony of Harmony and Invention / Harry Christophers

(Coro)

Alexander’s Feast, an ode to St Cecilia by the long-dead John Dryden, was set by Handel in 1736 and revised many times. Subtitled ‘The Power of Musick’, it describes a banquet held by Alexander the Great after his victory over the Persians. The singing and playing of Timotheus inspire Alexander to drunkenness, pity, love and revenge, one after the other. What has this to do with the patron saint of music, you might well ask? The answer comes in a commentary towards the end, when Dryden contrasts Timotheus’s pagan skills with the invention of the organ and the celestial connections of ‘Divine Cecilia’, who ‘enlarg’d the former narrow bounds’.

The music is superb, and it’s given a superb performance here. The Sixteen (actually 18, with two extra sopranos and an all-male alto line) are a little lightweight in the grander choruses but they sing with precision and unforced tone. Over a swiftly moving ground bass, ‘The many rend the skies’ goes with a swing; their finest moment, though, is their hushed contemplation of the Persian king lying dead on the field of battle.

The lion’s share of the solos goes to Nancy Argenta, whose fresh tones, admirably suited to ‘War, he sung, is toil and trouble’, are cunningly and effectively veiled for ‘He chose a mournful muse’, an accompanied recitative in the manner of ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’. Ian Partridge is superb in his subtle handling of the words, as he is with his wonderful breath control in ‘Happy pair’. Michael George is perfect in ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’: hissing snakes, flashing sparkles and all.

The orchestration is a constant delight. In some of the solo numbers Handel uses only violins and continuo; elsewhere he introduces a solo cello, a trumpet obbligato, recorders and horns. Best of all is the creepy middle section of ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’, where he conjures up the ‘ghastly band’ of the Grecian dead with Neapolitan sixth cadences played by the violas and bassoons in octaves. All these opportunities are seized with relish by the Symphony of Harmony and Invention. In an unsuitable church acoustic, Harry Christophers sets unfailingly suitable tempi. And to add to our delight he includes the concertos detailed above that are integral to the piece.

Athalia

Joan Sutherland, Emma Kirkby, James Bowman, Aled Jones, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, David Thomas; Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

(Decca)

''The first great English oratorio'': that was Winton Dean's view of Athalia in his classic study of Handel's oratorios 30 years ago. We have had several chances since then to hear the work, as well as its predecessors, and the judgement stands up well. Athalia, composed for Oxford in 1733 to a libretto that draws on Racine's play, tells the story of the usurping, apostate Jewish queen, Athalia, and her overthrow when the prophet Joad and his wife Josabeth bring the true heir, the boy Joas, to the throne. The action is pretty feebly handled by Handel's librettist, Samuel Humphreys (in particular it is never made clear what actually happens to Athalia in the end, or why); but several of the characters are quite strong and Handel grasps the opportunities offered him for striking music.

Athalia herself fares best of all, musically, as one would expect; and it was a brilliant stroke of imagination to ask Dame Joan Sutherland to take this role in the present recording. She is of course a great Handelian, but is scarcely a figure one expects to see in early-music circles. In the event, the slight disparity of approach between her and the other members of the cast serves ideally to symbolize the separation of Athalia from her fellow-Israelites, putting her, as it were, on a different plane. Dame Joan uses more vibrato than the others in the cast, but the singing is truly magnificent in its grandeur and its clear, bell-like, perfectly focused tone. The sound is rather large against the baroque flute (very sweetly and gracefully played) and upper strings in 'Softest sounds'', her first aria, but better that than an unnatural, contrived balance. Just before this comes Athalia's entry, an extraordinary sequence with her tortured recitatives interrupted by the Baalites' choruses (designed to cheer her up: the music is in Handel's best carefree-heathen vein); Dame Joan is superb in the relating of her dream where her mother Jezebel appears to her. Athalia's part is not in fact a large one, with only two full-length arias; the second, ''My vengeance awakes me'', is an energetic piece which she throws off with enormous spirit (even if the ornamentation goes beyond the well-judged stylistic limits observed elsewhere in the set).

Among the rest, Emma Kirkby is in her very best form, singing coolly, with poised musicianship, and with quite astonishing technical command at times. Listen to ''Through the land'', in Act 2, where the voice is beautifully balanced with two recorders and violins, the passage-work perfectly placed, the oddly shaped phrases pitched with absolute sureness, the thrilling a delight. Her Act 1 aria ''Faithful cares'' is finely done too in spite of a hint of clumsiness in the accompaniment once or twice James Bowman, as Joad, has his moments, and always sounds well, but I have heard him sing with more warmth and imagination. David Thomas is dependable in the often very vigorous music for the priest, Abner; and as Athalia's priest, Mathan, Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings in shapely fashion. The boy Joas is sung, as it should be, by a boy, in this case Aled Jones, who gives a very controlled, very exact performance, perhaps rather careful but of intense tonal beauty.

I found the choral singing a little variable. At its best, for example in the chorus that opens the Second Act, it is first rate, spirited, forthright, accurate (and the recorded sound in this particular number seems to me outstanding in its perspective, brightness and clarity). Also first rate is the fine chorus ''Rejoice, O Judah'' that ends Act 2. But in certain of the others there is an air of the routine, and the result is wanting in character and expressive force. There is much good, crisp orchestral playing, though some of the Academy of Ancient Music's less positive characteristics are to be noticed too: an occasional moment of unsure ensemble, and a lack of broad shaping – the final Allegro of the Overture, spiritedly done but with no sense of cumulative force, exemplifies this. These are however small, perfectionist quibbles: as a whole these two discs, excellently recorded, give an admirable and often striking realization of a work with many choice things, and I warmly recommend it.

Esther (1732 version)

Rosemary Joshua, Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond sops Susan Bickley mez James Bowman counterten Angus Smith, Andrew Kennedy, Christopher Watson tens Christopher Purves bar London Handel Choir and Orchestra / Laurence Cummings

(Somm)

Recorded live 2002

This is a particularly welcome and important world premiere recording. Handel composed Esther in about 1718‑20 for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon (and later Duke of Chandos), using a libretto that was anonymously adapted from Thomas Brereton’s English translation of a play by Racine. This slender work, containing only six scenes, lays a strong claim to being the first English oratorio, but Handel seems not to have considered performing it for a public audience until 1732, when the entrepreneurial composer thoroughly revised the score to fit his company of Italian opera singers (including Senesino, Strada and Montagnana, who all sang in English), and enlisted the aid of the writer Samuel Humphreys to expand the drama with additional scenes. This is the historic version of Esther that launched Handel’s oratorio career in London, but it has remained inexplicably neglected in modern times.

Laurence Cummings is one of our finest and most natural Handelian conductors. The Israelite Woman’s sensuous opening number ‘Breathe soft, ye gales’ (featuring recorders, oboes, bassoons, harp, theorbo, five-part strings and organ) is neatly judged by the impressive London Handel Orchestra. The superb choir is enthusiastic and masterly, and the two inserted Coronation Anthems My heart is inditing and Zadok the Priest (the latter given a parody text) are both performed magnificently. James Bowman sounds a little fragile in the most extensive coloratura passages written for Senesino in ‘Endless fame’, and the part of Mordecai seems uncomfortably low for Susan Bickley (which is not helped by the dragging speed of ‘Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger’), but in general the soloists form a consistently solid team. Christopher Purves is marvellous as the scheming and bullying evil minister Haman, and is equally good at singing the pitiful and lyrical ‘Turn not, O Queen, thy face away’ when the villain fears his deserved doom.

The all-round excellence of this live concert performance from Handel’s parish church, St George’s, Hanover Square, makes it an essential treat for Handelians.

Israel in Egypt

Nancy Argenta, Emily Van Evera sops Timothy Wilson counterten Anthony Rolfe Johnson ten David Thomas, Jeremy White basses Taverner Choir and Players / Andrew Parrott

(Erato)

Israel in Egypt, of all Handel’s works, is the choral one par excellence – so much so, in fact, that it was something of a failure in Handel’s own time because solo singing was much preferred to choral by the audiences. Andrew Parrott gives a complete performance of the work, in its original form: that’s to say, prefaced by the noble funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, as adapted by Handel to serve as a song of mourning by the captive Israelites. This first part is predominantly slow, grave music, powerfully elegiac; the Taverner Choir shows itself to be firm and clean of line, well focused and strongly sustained. The chorus has its chance to be more energetic in the second part, with the famous and vivid Plague choruses – in which the orchestra too plays its part in the pictorial effects, with the fiddles illustrating in turn frogs, flies and hailstones. And last, in the third part, there’s a generous supply of the stirring C major music in which Handel has the Israelites give their thanks to God, in some degree symbolising the English giving thanks for the Hanoverian monarchy and the Protestant succession. Be that as it may, the effect is splendid. The solo work is first-rate, too, with Nancy Argenta radiant in Miriam’s music in the final scene and distinguished contributions from David Thomas and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.

 

Jephtha

Lynne Dawson, Ruth Holton sops Anne Sofie von Otter mez Michael Chance counterten Nigel Robson ten Stephen Varcoe bar Alastair Ross hpd Paul Nicholson org Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(Philips)

Jephtha has the same basic story as several eastern Mediterranean myths familiar to the opera-goer (in Idomeneo and Iphigénie en Aulide, for example), of the father compelled to sacrifice his child. In the event Jephtha’s daughter Iphis isn’t sacrificed: when, Abraham-like, her father has shown himself willing to perform God’s will, and she has shown herself ready to accept it, an angel happily intervenes and commutes her sentence to perpetual virginity. But not before the tragic situation has provoked some of the noblest music Handel wrote. From the moment Jephtha sees that it’s his daughter who has to fall victim to his improvident oath, the music, hitherto on a good but not outstanding level, acquires a new depth, above all in the sequence at the end of Act 2. This recording does the work full justice. It could scarcely have been better cast. Nigel Robson seems ideal as Jephtha. He has due weight as well as vigour, style as well as expressive force. Lynne Dawson’s Iphis is also a real success. Sometimes this role is done in a girlishly ‘innocent’ vein; she does more than that, establishing the character in the appealing love duet in Act 1. Her firm, well focused, unaffected singing is just right for this role.

The other outstanding contribution comes from Michael Chance as Hamor, her unfortunate betrothed. Stephen Varcoe sings Zebul’s music with due resonance and spirit, and Anne Sofie von Otter makes a distinguished contribution in Storgè’s music: ‘Scenes of horror’ has a splendid attack and depth of tone, and ‘Let other creatures die!’ is spat out with rare power. Ruth Holton makes a pleasantly warm and mellifluous angel. The Monteverdi Choir are in fine voice, responsive to all that Gardiner asks of them. Here and there one might cavil at some of the dynamic shaping in the choruses, for example in ‘Doubtful fear’ in Act 3; and the Overture can be a trifle fussy in detail. But the broad vision of the work, the rhythmic energy that runs through it and the sheer excellence of the choral and orchestral contributions speak for themselves. Cuts are very few, and amply justified by authentic precedent. This recording is firmly recommended as the standard version of this great work.

Messiah (Dublin version, 1742)

Susan Hamilton sop Clare Wilkinson, Annie Gill, Heather Cairncross mez Nicholas Mulroy ten Matthew Brook bar Edward Caswell bass Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

For an infinitely rewarding fresh look at Handel’s most familiar music, look no further than the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s first version, premiered at Dublin in 1742. Bizarrely under-represented in concert and on disc, the Dublin score contains some fascinating music that Handel never reused, such as the substantial chorus ‘Break forth into joy’. The exuberant direction by harpsichordist John Butt is meticulously stylish and utterly devoid of crassly pretentious egotism. The playing is unerringly spontaneous and dramatically integrated with singers who illustrate profound appreciation of text. Clare Wilkinson’s ‘He was despised’ is most moving, Susan Hamilton effortlessly skips through a delicious ‘Rejoice greatly’, and bass Matthew Brook sings as if his life depends on it.

Butt bravely resolves to use the same forces Handel had at his disposal in Dublin, which means that the entire oratorio is sung by a dozen singers (with all soloists required to participate in the choruses, as Handel would have expected). Where this approach might risk worthy dull solos churned out by stalwart choir members, the Dunedin Consort’s exemplary singers produce virtuoso choruses that are theatrically charged, splendidly poised and exquisitely blended. Old warhorses ‘For unto us a child is born’ and ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ are delightfully inspiring. Butt and the Dunedin Consort marry astute scholarship to sincere artistic expression and the result is comfortably the freshest, most natural, revelatory and transparently joyful Messiah to have appeared for a very long time.

Messiah

The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

(Coro)

Over the past few decades Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have performed Messiah about 150 times. This new Coro recording presents them to better advantage than their uneven 1987 version for Hyperion: the choir remains excellent 21 years later but the orchestra and soloists are a vast improvement. Only one member of the choir and two orchestral players repeat their roles in the 2008 performance, and the violin section has swelled from seven to 12, which helps to produce a stronger theatrical sound. Christophers’s interpretation nowadays is just over four minutes longer than it was in 1987, so there are no radical changes in his overall pacing, but taking a few things a notch slower suggests an increased confidence and maturity.

The contribution from the oboes is more telling and to the fore than one usually hears, although the prominence of the organ as a continuo instrument is seldom convincing (nor is the use of theorbo accompaniment in recitatives). The Sixteen’s choral singing has clarity, balance, shapely moulding of contrapuntal lines and plenty of unforced power. When necessary, resonant homophonic grandeur is achieved without pomposity. The contrast between the playful and solemn parts of “All we like sheep” is wondrously realised, and the soft sections of “Since by man came death” are breathtaking.

Three of the soloists earned their spurs as members of The Sixteen. Mark Padmore, a choir member in 1987 and here making his third (and best) Messiah recording as a soloist, could be a little lighter in “Comfort ye”, but his evangelical communication of words is highly effective in “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”. Carolyn Sampson and the orchestra’s violins relish an equal dialogue in “Rejoice greatly”, and her coloratura sparkles with clarity and assurance. Christopher Purves sings “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” more softly than one usually hears, and “The trumpet shall sound” is lyrical and suave (with splendid obbligato from Robert Farley). Christophers conducts with finesse and integrity. This fine team performance is a safe recommendation for anyone wanting to acquire an all-purpose “period” Messiah.

La Resurrezione

Camilla Tilling, Kate Royal sops Sonia Prina contr Toby Spence ten Luca Pisaroni bass-bar Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm hpd/org

(Erato)

Handel’s early Resurrection oratorio, written in 1708 during the young composer’s Roman sojurn, is characterised by a freshness and vitality that he seldom matched in more mature works. That spirit shines through in Emmanuelle Haïm’s excellent new recording with her Concert d’Astrée, played with all the expressive flair one has come to expect of her. In what might be described as the French manner in Handel, Haïm can be exaggerated in her tempi, lavishing care on the beautiful slower numbers, but that seems to me to be absolutely right, and preferable to some of the stiff-upper-lip English interpretations in a surprisingly full discography of this work.

After all, La Resurrezione is an opera in all but name, a sacred drama hiding behind the oratorio label because of the Papal ban on opera in Rome during that period. In common with many operas of the time – and fewer oratorios – there are no large choral forces required in this portrayal of the battle between protagonists of darkness and light. The path towards the ultimate victory of Christ’s acolytes is portrayed in music of great brilliance and Handel must have made a profound impression on his Roman colleagues at the premiere – where the orchestra was led by none other than Corelli.

The international cast includes two Italians, whose verbal relish is especially good to hear. Luca Pisaroni makes a suitably villainous Lucifer and his virile bass-baritone is well up to the wide tessitura of the part; this is a devil who gets some of the most difficult tunes. Sonia Prina’s contralto is heard to lovely effect in Mary Cleophas’s pastoral music. The work’s striking opening aria belongs to the Angel, taken here with plenty of presence by Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling. Two British singers complete the line-up and both give of their very best. Toby Spence is elegant in St John the Evangelist’s music, and Kate Royal finds sumptuous beauty and emotional depth in the part of Mary Magdalene.

Saul

Christopher Purves, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray, Elizabeth Atherton, Joélle Harvey, Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd, Stuart Young; The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

(Coro) 

Saul is one of Handel’s most distinctive and greatest masterpieces. Composed only a few years before he ceased writing Italian operas for the London stage, the Biblical dramatic oratorio launched his season at the King’s Theatre on January 16, 1739; the other new work for the season was Israel in Egypt (premiered on April 4), which also featured Handel’s rare use of trombones to enrich several opulent numbers.

The epic anthology of archaic and modern chorus techniques in the scriptural, monumental and decidedly undramatic Israel in Egypt was radically different from the fascinating dramatic characters and quasi-Shakespearean intensity of the vividly theatrical Saul, in which the trombones, carillon and harp are used to illustrate Biblical scenes of music-making, from jubilant crowd scenes to intimate music for David.

Harry Christophers’s enthusiastic preface to the booklet incorrectly claims that Saul ‘represents Handel’s first proper foray into oratorio’, but his ever-sure handling of choruses, sensitivity to the needs of solo singers and affinity for the orchestral grandeur of Handel’s most elaborate score mark him out as an honest, natural Handelian conductor: choices of tempo tend to be about right, and very little in this performance feels contrived, unstylish or misconstrued. A large part of the success of The Sixteen’s performance is the warmly detailed stylishness of the orchestral playing; the organ concerto-style movement in the overture has seldom sounded more fluent, even if it is not entirely clear which of the wo credited organists plays the solos. The punctuating trumpets, trombones and timpani and choral exclamations in the epinicion celebrating the boy David’s victory over Goliath (‘How excellent thy name, O Lord’) offer a glorious swagger, and the altos, tenors and basses of the choir relish illustrating the deceased Philistine’s giant steps in ‘Along the monster atheist strode’.

It now seems that evidence is not conclusive about whether or not the heroic role of the virtuous warrior and talented musician David was first sung by a countertenor; Christophers’s note argues against the countertenor solution, using ideas attributed to the late and great Handel scholar Anthony Hicks, who would have probably been a little more careful about the matter in print. However, all questions of gender/voice-type disintegrate when one hears Sarah Connolly’s shapely phrasing, melodic sweetness and eloquent command of language. ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ is as quietly rapturous as anyone other than the enraged Saul could desire.

Jonathan’s soliloquy disobeying his father’s cruel order to assassinate David is sung thoughtfully by Robert Murray. Saul’s daughters Michal and Merab are like chalk and cheese regarding their initially opposed attitudes toward David, and Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey are different enough in tone to make an effective direct contrast between the disdainful Merab’s ‘My soul rejects the thought’ and her sister Michal’s ‘Ah, lovely youth’. Discretion might have been the better part of valour for the over-employed harp continuo: the instrument Handel presumably reserved as a special effect connected to David does not seem to fit in the haughty Merab’s ‘What abject thoughts a prince can have!’ (Atherton conveys an ideal dosage of scorn), although the artistic licence works charmingly in Harvey’s lovely performance of Michal’s ‘Fell rage and black despair’, which refers to David striking ‘the sweet persuasive lyre’ (the flute obbligato is beautifully played by Christine Garratt).

Christopher Purves charms, broods, fumes implacably, plots villainously and confronts his doom vividly in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedian. The incrementing fury of his secretive seething reactions to imprudent women exalting David’s military successes above those of their king (the carillon-laden choruses ‘Welcome, welcome, mighty king’) are compelling. The bombastic brassy symphony that precedes his gloating anticipation as he hopes to murder David treacherously at the Feast of the New Moon is a bit short on rhetorical posture but Christophers’s trusting direction of the ombra music is spot-on as the forsaken Saul resorts to outlawed witchcraft on the eve of his final doom in battle.

The sublime elegy for the slain Jonathan and Saul is heartrending in most of the right places; its plangent choral passages are tailor-made for The Sixteen’s flexible, supple and articulate voices, although Christophers uncharacteristically rushes ‘Eagles were not so swift as they’: the vital mood of doleful lamentation should be sustained more organically rather than a sudden rush to convey the dizzy swiftness of eagles who are only metaphorical (Handel did not indicate a tempo marking but I doubt he intended presto vivace).

The Sixteen’s experience of Renaissance polyphony is evident in several contemplative choruses, such as ‘Preserve him for the glory of Thy name’, which sounds beguilingly more like Palestrina rather than the choppy fugue one ordinarily hears even in the best performances. Contrapuntal lines are moulded warmly and with immaculate diction, and extrovert choruses are sung with plenty of charisma, seductiveness or moral outrage as the texts variously demand, such as the choric contemplations of envy and rage that bookend Act 2. Special recordings of Handel’s greatest English dramatic oratorios have become too rare recently, so it is valuable that The Sixteen’s first-class account of Saul is magnificent in every way that matters most.

Semele 

Rosemary Joshua, Gail Pearson sops Hilary Summers contr Stephen Wallace counterten Richard Croft ten Brindley Sherratt bass Chorus and Orchestra of the Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn

(Chandos)

Of a handful of previous recordings of Semele, none was entirely satisfying. Which makes this new version – complete save for an aria for Cupid that Handel later pilfered forHercules – all the more welcome. Christian Curnyn understands the unique tinta of this gorgeous score, and directs his spruce period band with a nice blend of nonchalant elegance and dramatic energy. Tempi are shrewdly judged, rhythms light and supple, and recitatives tumble inevitably into arias. The tragic denouement in Act 3 has due weight and intensity, whether in the tenderly inflected accompanied recitatives for Jupiter and Semele, or the awed chorus of Thebans after the heroine’s incineration.

As at the English National Opera, Rosemary Joshua, radiant of tone, dazzling in coloratura, makes Semele far more than an over-sexed airhead. She is trills ethereally in ‘The morning lark’, distils a drowsy, erotic languor in ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’, and ornaments her ‘mirror’ aria, ‘Myself I shall adore’, with dizzy glee. She is imploring and fiery by turns in her exchanges with Jupiter, and brings real pathos to the haunting siciliano ‘Thus let my thanks be paid’ and her sublime death scene. As Jupiter, Richard Croft fields a honeyed, sensuous tone (heard to advantage in a seductive ‘Where’re you walk’) and formidable agility, though he could learn a thing or two about diction from Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (on Gardiner’s Erato set).

Like Handel himself, Curnyn assigns the virago Juno and Semele’s gentle sister Ino to the same singer. Hilary Summers, a true, deep contralto, characterises both roles well. Brindley Sherratt, with his oaky bass, offers vivid, witty cameos as Cadmus and Somnus, while Stephen Wallace sings Athamus’s arias with smooth tone and a nimble florid technique, though a suspicion remains that the role lies a bit low for him. With excellent recorded sound and balance, and an informative essay from David Vickers, this becomes a clear first choice for an ever-enticing work.

Solomon

Inger Dam-Jensen, Susan Gritton, Alison Hagley sops Susan Bickley mez Andreas Scholl counterten Paul Agnew ten Peter Harvey bass Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh

(Archiv)

Solomon is universally recognised as one of Handel’s finest masterpieces, not only with magnificent choruses, but more importantly containing rapturous love music, nature imagery, affecting emotion and the vividly portrayed dramatic scene of Solomon’s famous judgement over the disputed infant. This is in fact the only dramatic part of the oratorio; and each of the female characters appears in only one of the work’s three parts. Paul McCreesh, responsive to the work’s stature, employs an orchestra of about 60 (including a serpent as the bass of the wind group) and presents the oratorio in the original 1749 version, full and uncut.

It’s been argued that even in so splendid a work Handel was fallible enough to include some dead wood. McCreesh, however, stoutly defends the original structural balance. In one respect, though, he does depart from Handel’s intentions. By the time Solomon was written, he was using no castratos in his -oratorios, and the title-role was deliberately designed for a mezzo-soprano; but here the chance to secure the pre-eminent countertenor Andreas Scholl was irresistible. The colour of Handel’s predominantly female vocal casting (only Zadok and the smaller-part Levite being exceptions) is thus slightly modified. This historical infidelity is one of the few possible -reservations about the set, which is a notable achievement. McCreesh is fortunate in his cast, too. Predictably, Scholl becomes the central focus by his beauty of voice, calm authority, charm and intelligent musicianship. Inger Dam-Jensen, as Solomon’s queen, sounds suitably ecstatic in the florid ‘Blessed the day’ and amorous in ‘With thee th’unsheltered moor’, and her duet with Solomon flows with easy grace. To Susan Gritton falls the sublime ‘Will the sun forget to streak’, with its wonderful unison oboe-and-flute obbligato. As the high priest Zadok, Paul Agnew shines in the ornate ‘See the tall palm’. A more positive and audible keyboard continuo would have been welcome, but this is a minor shortcoming, and the effect of the performance as a whole is deeply impressive, with such things as ‘Will the sun’, the grave interlude to ‘With pious heart’ and the elegiac chorus ‘Draw the tear from hopeless love’ haunting the listener’s mind.

Susanna

Lorraine Hunt, Drew Minter, Jennifer Lane, Jeffrey Thomas, David Thomas; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

(Harmonia Mundi)

Here is a case of astonishing neglect not just gratefully but outstandingly well repaired . Not that Handel himself gave Susanna many opportunities, reviving it only once after the premiere of 1749. I t has suffered critical misunderstanding and misrepresentation over the years, but from the evidence of this superb performance, it is a work of deep seriousness, gravely moral in tone. The long opening scene, est ablishing the marital happiness of Susanna and Joacim, is unfolded with real accomplishment offering music of warmth and consequence as well for Chelsias, Susanna's father. The aria for soprano that closes the scene, "Bending to the throne of glory", strikes me as one of Handel's noblest utterances.

Susanna's two suitors are vividly portrayed; the tenor's music is infused with a kind of insinuating sensuality that perfectly captures the character's lasciviousness and the bass's is truly menacing in its directness and graphic expression. Jeffrey and David Thomas beautifully fill these portraits with a real grasp of the Handelian line and phrase. The aria for Susanna that follows, "If guiltless blood be your intent" is one of those moments where the music is extraordinarily elevating, as too is the chorus that ends the act, after an aria from Joacim which represents with dashing violins his flying home to Susanna's aid.

The soprano Lorraine Hunt, as Susanna, offers singing of great expressiveness and she rises to great heights of concentration in her arias at the heart of the work. Drew Minter's perfectly tuned, gently phrased Joacim, matches her extraordinarily well. Jill Feldman, too, offers some stylish and fresh singing.

The California-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, under Nicholas McGegan, produce a warmer, and less scrawny sound than many baroque bands but with welcomely less surface gloss. This is, in short, one of the best performances I have heard of any Handel oratorio, marked by integrity on every plane. Above all it establishes that Susanna is a work of stature that I, for one, had never suspected from previous performances or the score. An excellent recording and a first-rate booklet merely add to the pleasure of this outstanding set.

Theodora

Susan Gritton sop Susan Bickley mez Robin Blaze counterten Paul Agnew, Angus Smith tens Neal Davies bass Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh

(Archiv)

Theodora, Handel’s penultimate oratorio, was a failure in his own time. Until relatively recently it remained a rarity, but lately it has come to be recognised as a masterpiece, although quite different in mood and treatment from most of his more familiar oratorios. This recording encourages attentive listening to its subtleties, because it’s done with such affection, care and refinement. There’s nothing sensational about it, no singer who overwhelms you with brilliance or virtuosity. But all the solo music is finely sung. Theodora herself is taken by Susan Gritton, who’s won golden opinions for a great deal of lovely, clear and musicianly singing, with a quiet seriousness and unaffected intensity that are ideally suited to the role. Her presence at the centre of the tragic drama elevates it as a whole.

Irene, her fellow Christian, is sung with scarcely less distinction by Susan Bickley, coolly expressive in most of her music, more passionate in ‘Defend her Heaven’ in Act 2, a shapely performance with subtleties of timing. Didymus, originally a castrato role (very rare in oratorios), is sung by Robin Blaze, whose focused, even-toned countertenor – not a hint of the traditional hoot – serves well: this is fluent singing, with no great depth of tone, but very steady and controlled, with the detail precisely placed. As Septimius, Paul Agnew is in good voice, firm and full in tone, phrasing the music elegantly (although the Act 3 air is unconvincing, too bouncy and cheerful for the situation). Lastly, there’s Neal Davies as the Roman ruler, Valens, whose excellent singing makes as persuasive a case as can be imagined for torturing Christians – his is a pleasantly grainy voice, with considerable warmth and fullness of tone, well suited to a figure representing authority, and he despatches the divisions with assurance.

Ornamentation is appropriate and tasteful, and McCreesh takes the recitative at a natural and relaxed pace. His main contribution, however, is in the well-sprung rhythms he draws from his Gabrieli singers and players, in the way he allows the lines to breathe, and in the sense of purpose and direction he imparts to the bass-line. Add to this a keen sense of the right pace for each number, and you’ve the recipe for an outstanding reading of this noble work.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

Lucy Crowe sop Anna Stephany mez Hilary Summers contr Andrew Staples ten Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn hpd

(Wigmore Hall Live)

Recorded live, with only a few tiny audible signs of being caught on the wing, Christian Curnyn’s impeccably stylish performance employs a modest string band (3.2.1.1.1), a single bassoon, a simple team of continuo players (archlute, organ and Curnyn at the harpsichord) and a pair of oboists who double up on recorders when necessary (standard practice in the early 18th century).

Curnyn’s shapely handling of ritornellos often leans towards delicacy rather than vigour, and throughout the concert the string-playing is immaculate: even the macabre ombra aspects of the fast string figures during the introduction to Tempo’s ‘Urne voi’ are blended sweetly. Elsewhere, instrumental parts in rapid arias played quietly and delicately lack nothing in energy, and Curnyn’s interpretations tend to be subtler and less formulaic than those who might pursue the objectives of abrasive dramatic punchiness. Robust cut-and-thrust is lacking but only infrequently.

The singers deliver an engaging and fervent account of the moral conflict between the evil Piacere (Pleasure) and the virtuous guardians Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Disenchantment) over the soul of Bellezza (Beauty), who wants to be a disciple of Pleasure but thankfully ends up on the side of the angels just in the nick of time to be saved. Mezzo Anna Stephany reins her voice in with admirable discipline and there is a nice atmosphere of chamber music-making between her vocal lines and solos by organist Mark Williams. Hilary Summers sounds uncomfortable in Disinganno’s ‘Più non cura’ but sings ‘Crede l’uom’ compassionately; the aria’s recorder-laden pastoral shades are judged to perfection by Curnyn (whose own harpsichord continuo realisation is discreet and delightful). Lucy Crowe’s animated coloratura is executed with precision and refinement, her embellishments strike the ideal balance between unpredictability and fitting the harmony naturally, and Bellezza’s slower sentimental music is captivating.

Operatic Arias

David Daniels counterten Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Sir Roger Norrington

(Erato)

The ever-increasing popularity of Handel and his contemporaries, and their employment of alto -castratos, has encouraged the development of countertenors capable of similar vocal feats to the original interpreters of the heroic roles in these works. Among these, David Daniels can certainly be counted as a leading contender. He displays and deploys his talent here in a wide range of arias reflective and dramatic. His amazing technique runs through Tamerlano’s virtuoso ‘A dispetto’ and Bertarido’s ‘Vivi tiranno!’ without a blemish in the sound and with every division in its place yet part of a confidently delivered whole: by and large Daniels’s runs and embellishments are smoothly accomplished. In more reflective pieces such as Giulio Cesare’s ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’ (he also tackles Sesto’s ‘Cara speme’ from Giulio Cesare, a particularly liquid, subtle piece of singing), Bertarido’s ‘Dove sei?’ and Ariodante’s sad lament ‘Scherza infida’, written for the great Senesino, he uses his impeccable Italian to express wide-ranging emotions. Throughout, Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment give excellent support. The recording is blameless so there’s every reason for readers to sample this fine exposition of the countertenor’s art.

Opera Seria

Sandrine Piau sop Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset

(Naïve)

Sandrine Piau and Christophe Rousset have been consistently stylish and -perceptive Handelians together. Their musical flair and dramatic intelligence are marvellously captured here, and they have chosen arias that explore the full range of Handel’s genius.

The experience starts with the spectacular ‘Scoglio d’immota fronte’, and the subsequent sequence weaves through wonderful contrasts. It’s hard to capture the full dramatic sense and vivid personality of Handel’s opera characters in a studio recital, yet they hit the bullseye every time, bringing out Cleopatra’s despair, Rodelinda’s eloquent grief for her apparently deceased husband, the heartbroken sorceress Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula, Deidamia’s distress at losing Achilles to the Trojan war, and Partenope’s gorgeous charisma.

Although some da capo sections stray a little too far from Handel’s notation for the comfort of scholars, they all enhance the drama of the text, and each cadenza, showing panache and taste, is a breath of fresh air. The playing of Les Talens Lyriques is a model of clarity, vitality and theatrical wit. It was an inspired decision to close the recital with the sublime understatement of ‘Son qual stanco’, featuring a heartbreaking cello solo by Atsushi Sakaï. Rousset and Piau achieve the perfect synthesis of elegance, extravagance and emotion.

‘Amor e gelosia’

Patrizia Ciofi sop Joyce Di Donato mez Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis hpd

(Erato)

The duets in Handel’s operas are the special treats, coming at climactic points – most often two lovers’ supposedly final parting or their ultimate reunion. Try ‘Io t’abbraccio’ from Rodelinda or the wonderful ‘Per la porte del tormento’ from Sosarme. We have several pieces from Poro, first the intense little love duet in Act 2, and later the two arias in which Poro and Cleofide swear eternal fidelity – which they fling back at each other when, in a duet we also hear, both believe themselves betrayed. Then there’s the delightful little minor-key duet from Faramondo, the quarrel duet from Atalanta, the charmingly playful piece from Muzio Scevola, and the extraordinary one for the pleading Angelica and the furious, maddened Orlando. Handel’s understanding of the shades and accents of love is something to marvel at.

All are most beautifully sung by Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato, who has just the right firmness and focus for a castrato role (as the mezzo voices almost always are here); both phrase beautifully, articulate and express the words clearly and tellingly, and ornament the da capo sections in a natural and tasteful fashion. The accompaniments, done by a chamber group under Alan Curtis with much refined timing of detail, add to the pleasures of this truly delectable CD.

Alcina 

Joyce DiDonato sop Alcina Karina Gauvin sop Morgana Maite Beaumont mez Ruggiero Sonia Prina contr Bradamante Kobie Van Rensburg ten Oronte Vito Priante bass Melisso Laura Cherici sop Oberto Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

Archiv 477 7374AH3 (3h 23’ · DDD · S/T/t) 

Alan Curtis clearly welcomed the chance to add this masterpiece to the gradually expanding list of Handel operas he has recorded with Il Complesso Barocco. This Alcina is polished and passionate, the standard of da capo ornamentation unsurpassed. The acoustical environment of this recording is near-perfect. Every detail can be clearly heard, in part because of the minimal instrumental resources Curtis employs and his keen sense of the architecture and pacing of Handel’s music.

Handel knew his singers’ individual strengths and played to them. Curtis, too, knows how to coax the best from his singers. Joyce DiDonato, Maite Beaumont and Karina Gauvin have worked with him before and contribute vividly informed portrayals of the principal characters that stand comparison with the best performances on previous recordings. Technically, DiDonato is superb: her Alcina is a complex, feminine creature, vain and vindictive – listen to her spine-tingling performance of ‘Ombre pallide’ and the recitative that precedes it in Act 2. Beaumont is at ease in Carestini’s role as Ruggiero – heroic when required (as in ‘Bramo di trionfar’, the discarded aria, originally in Act 1 scene 7, that Curtis reinstated) – and more than equal to the demands of the much-loved ‘Verdi prati’ (Act 2). Gauvin, her silk-clad Morgana fully as manipulative as Alcina, and Prina, the ever faithful Bradamante, each bring tremendous spirit and sensuousness to their roles. If Van Rensburg’s Oronte wavers momentarily in Act 3, Priante’s steadfast Melisso and Cherici’s courageous Oberto show the way. This could well be the Alcina we’ve been waiting for.

Ariodante 

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Juliana Gondek, Jennifer Lane, Jörn Lindemann, Lisa Saffer, Nicolas Cavallier, Rufus Müller; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

(Harmonia Mundi)

Many Handelians, I imagine, will already have a recording of Ariodante, either the original LPs or the CD set issued at the end of 1994 of the Leppard performance of 1980 with Dame Janet Baker in the title-role. Baker is in superb voice, and for her commanding singing alone the set is more than worth having; but the new version under Nicholas McGegan certainly surpasses it in almost every other way. This recording, made with the cast from the Gottingen Festival last year (largely American singers who have collaborated with McGegan in his Californian performances), seems to me at least the equal of the best he has done before. The quality of the music is of course a factor: Ariodante is one of the richest of the Handel operas. It begins with a flood of fine numbers, just like Giulio Cesare, mostly love music for the betrothed pair, Ariodante and the Scottish princess Ginevra – she is introduced in a wonderfully carefree aria, he in a gentle, exquisite slow arietta; then they have a very individual and beautiful love duet, and each goes on to a more jubilant aria. But the plot thickens and the music darkens with Polinesso’s machinations, designed to impugn her fidelity: so that Act 2 contains music of vengeance and grief (above all the magnificent “Scherza infida!” for Ariodante, a G minor aria with muted upper and pizzicato lower strings, and soft bassoons), while the final act shows all the characters in extremis, until the plot is uncovered and equilibrium is restored. This is also one of Handel’s few operas with extensive ballet; each act includes some splendid and ingeniously tuneful dance music.

McGegan directs in his usual spirited style. There is a real theatrical sense to his conducting: this is one of those opera sets where, after the overture, you find your spine tingling in expectation of the drama, which I suppose isn’t surprising for a performance that originated in the theatre, though it doesn’t always happen. At any rate, his tempos are wide-ranging – quicker ones move pretty smartly, but the slower ones are given ample time for the import of the music to make itself felt. He does not shirk the tragic grandeur that has a place in this score: listen for example to the opening music of Act 3. The dances are done with springy rhythms and often with considerable vigour. The recitatives are sung at a good pace but with full dramatic weight. I still don’t quite like some of the dapper staccatos and unshaped cadences, but they don’t offend; nor, on the whole, does the singers’ ornamentation on those occasions when it goes beyond the ornamental and departs too radically from the lines of the music. The orchestra, modest in size (the strings are only 4.4.2.3.2: I should have preferred more violins), are efficient and precise.

Lorraine Hunt’s soprano seems warm and full for a castrato part (though I can’t pretend to know what the authentic sound should be), but her line is always well-defined and she has a delightfully musical voice which she uses gracefully and expressively. Her virtuoso A major aria in Act 1 is masterly in style and control and so are the rapid semiquaver runs in the aria that opens Act 2. And there is great intensity in her singing of the two minor key arias that begin the final act. “Scherza infida” seems curiously balanced, the voice excessively forward or the orchestra subdued. As Ginevra, Juliana Gondek, even with a touch more vibrato than might be ideal, sings with a natural musicianship – to be heard in her phrasing and her way of shaping the music – and a wide range of expression: best of all perhaps in the virtuoso aria in Act 1 and the magnificent tragic scene at the end of Act 2, though the poignant D minor farewell to her father in Act 3 is deeply touching too. Lisa Saffer provides a charming and spirited Dalinda and Nicolas Cavallier a King with suitable warmth and depth of tone. Rufus Muller’s voice is a shade baritonal for the tenor role of Lurcanio and his Italian sounds a little awkward but he sings capably and sympathetically. The role of Polinesso, intended for a contralto rather than a castrato, is projected by Jennifer Lane with style and some passion, the latter particularly in the final aria where he looks forward to his triumph. A fine set, which I recommend very warmly.

Ezio

Sonia Prina sop Valentiniano Ann Hallenberg mez Ezio Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani ten Massimo Karina Gauvin sop Fulvia Marianne Andersen mez Onoria Vito Priante bass Varo Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

(Archiv)

Ezio is like a Roman thriller. Those wanting superficial thrills and glamorous wit from their Baroque operas might not know what to make of it, and the original audience in 1732 certainly didn’t (it was one of Handel’s worst commercial flops). However, it frequently shows the composer at his most masterly.

Alan Curtis sagely allows Handel’s music to speak for itself unhindered by artificial gimmicks: ritornellos are subtle, continuo accompaniment of recitatives is exemplary for its pacing and judgement, and singers declaim their texts with utmost clarity. The sole disadvantage is that more passionate music is underplayed and lightweight, which means that sometimes it lacks dramatic punch and expressiveness. For instance, the dance-like courtliness in the overture is elegantly moulded but could do with some fiery intensity, and the final chorus is curiously underdone. So much of the performance is musically meticulous, but it would have flourished with a few more degrees of dramatic heat.

‘Ecco alle mie catene’, an emotional prison-scene aria at the end of Act 2, is sensitively sung by Ann Hallenberg but Il Complesso Barocco sound underpowered; a better synergy between instruments and voice is achieved in ‘Se la mia vita’. Fulvia’s dazzling aria di bravura ‘La mia costanza’ is impressive for Karina Gauvin’s articulate stylishness and a fantastic cadenza. Sonia Prina’s singing is admirable. Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s fast runs are a bit dry in the superbly played ‘Và! dal furor portata’. The unusual instrumentation for flutes and violette in Onoria’s ‘Quanto mai felice’ is excellently played. Vito Priante sings Varo’s splendid trumpet aria ‘Già risonar d’intorno’ with robust precision (Curtis adds a timpani part). Overall, this is an excellent and much-needed first complete recording, and confirms that Ezio is a fascinating serious drama.

Faramondo

Max Emanuel Cencic counterten Faramondo Sophie Karthäuser sop Clotilde Marina de Liso mez Rosimonda In-Sung Sim bass Gustavo Philippe Jaroussky counterten Adolfo Xavier Sabata counterten Gernando Fulvio Bettini bar Teobaldo Terry Wey counterten Childerico Swiss Radio Chorus; I Barocchisti / Diego Fasolis

(Erato)

Faramondo (1738) was written after the remnants of the Opera of the Nobility and Handel’s opera company merged together for one peculiar and unsuccessful season at the King’s Theatre. Virgin Classics (Erato) has made much of the fact that this is the first Handel opera recording in which all the male characters are sung at the correct pitch by male singers, but several of the illustrious countertenors involved occasionally drop a few notes down an octave in order to conserve their larynxes.

I Barocchisti’s playing of the fine concerto grosso-style Overture is zesty. Handel’s scoring of the chorus ‘Pera, pera’ doesn’t include the drums and trumpets employed here, and a few more euros could have been saved by not using unhistorical organ and guitar in the continuo group. Sophie Karthäuser’s light navigation of Clotilde’s arias provides some nice moments (‘Combattuta da due venti’ is eloquent rather than tempestuous, but none the worse for a bit of measured clarity and detail in its oscillating orchestral figures). Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic each give attractive performances of virtuoso arias. Adolfo’s slow aria ‘Se a’ piedi tuoi morrò’ is delightful for its polished orchestral playing and Jaroussky’s pleasant singing. Cencic’s high-lying tessitura and brilliant coloratura are almost flawless. Xavier Sabata demonstrates his muskier voice in the enraged ‘Voglio che mora, sì’, but hams up his da capo too much. Marina de Liso gives a stunning performance of Rosimonda’s turbulent ‘Sì, l’intendesti, sì’ (in which Diego Fasolis brings out exciting details in the accompaniment), and the bass villain Gustavo is resonantly sung by In-Sung Sim. Fasolis’s direction is exemplary for its warmly authoritative expressiveness and fluent mastery over detail. Faramondo is revealed as a much better score than previously thought.

 

Flavio

Tim Mead counterten Flavio Iestyn Davies counterten Guido Rosemary Joshua sop Emilia Hilary Summers contr Teodata Renata Pokupić mez Vitige Thomas Walker ten Ugone Andrew Foster‑Williams bass-bar Lotario Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn 

(Chandos) 

Premiered at the King’s Theatre in May 1723, Flavio is one of those Handel operas that takes a wryly amused view of the power struggles, bulging egos and heroic posturing endemic to opera seria. With its pungent mix of comedy, ironic detachment and near-tragedy, it now seems one of the composer’s most endearing stage works. Set in a legendary Dark Ages when Britain was supposedly ruled by Lombardy, the plot hinges on the whims of the oversexed, cynically manipulative King Flavio, whose lust for the beautiful – and far from innocent – Teodata threatens to wreak havoc on everyone around him.

Christian Curnyn and his spruce period band finely catch the tone and tinta of this delectable opera. Tempi – mobile but never frenetic – are aptly chosen, rhythms buoyant. Yet Curnyn gives due weight to the opera’s graver moments. The singers, many of them Curnyn regulars, dispatch their arias with fine Handelian style and spirit, and, crucially, bring real theatrical vitality to their recitative exchanges. Handel curiously cast the part of Teodata (written for the deep contralto Anastasia Robinson) for a lower voice than that of her lover Vitige. But while her timbre more naturally suggests gravity than levity, Hilary Summers catches Teodata’s teasing, flirtatious nature through inflection and phrasing. As her lover Vitige, Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupić sings with grace, verve and (not least in Vitige’s jealous outburst in Act 3) an exciting flame in the tone; and Thomas Walker and the sonorous bass Andrew Foster-Williams excel in the blustering, mock-heroic coloratura arias for the squabbling councillors Ugone and Lotario.

As Flavio, Tim Mead sings smoothly and mellifluously without always catching to the full the mingled charm, absurdity and menace of the king’s character. Iestyn Davies, in the Senesino role of Guido, has slightly more ‘bite’ to his countertenor and rises impressively both to the anguished fury of his Act 2 aria ‘Rompo i lacci’ and the profound pathos of his final aria. Always a lovely Handel singer, Rosemary Joshua brings to Emilia’s glorious music a pure, lucent tone and a vivid sense of character, growing from initial blitheness to the grieving intensity of her siciliano lament for her father. The sole rival Flavio, directed by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi), has been rightly praised. But on balance, this beautifully recorded new version of Handel’s flavoursome tragicomedy takes the palm, for its (on the whole) superior cast and orchestral playing, and for Curnyn’s direction, stylish, lively and unaffected where Jacobs can be irritatingly interventionist.

Giulio Cesare

Jennifer Larmore mez Giulio Cesare Barbara Schlick sop Cleopatra Bernarda Fink mez Cornelia Marianne Rørholm mez Sesto Derek Lee Ragin counterten Tolomeo Furio Zanasi bass Achilla Olivier Lallouette bar Curio Dominique Visse counterten Nireno Concerto Köln / René Jacobs

(Harmonia Mundi)

Handel’s greatest heroic opera sports no fewer than eight principal characters and one of the largest orchestras he ever used. Undoubtedly this, and the singing of Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra) and Senesino (Caesar), helped to launch Giulio Cesare into the enduring popularity that it enjoys to this day. But it’s primarily the quality of the music, with barely a weak number in four hours of entertainment, that’s made it such a favourite with audiences. Here the period instruments are an immediate advantage in giving extra ‘bite’ to the many moments of high drama without threatening to drown the singers in forte passages.

This performance is a particularly fine one with an excellent cast; Caesar, originally sung by a castrato, is here taken by the young mezzo, Jennifer Larmore. She brings weight and inte-grity to the role, seemingly untroubled by the demands of the final triumphant aria, ‘Qual torrente’. Occasionally her vibrato becomes intrusive, but that’s a minor quibble in a performance of this stature. Handel could just as well have called his opera ‘Cleopatra’ as she’s the pivotal element in the drama, a role taken here by Barbara Schlick and sung with acuity and imagination. If Cleopatra represents strength in a woman, then Cornelia is surely the tragic figure, at the mercy of events. Her first aria, ‘Priva son’, here taken very slowly, shows Bernarda Fink to be more than equal to the role, admirable in her steady tone and dignity of character. Derek Lee Ragin’s treacherous Ptolemy is also memorable, venom and fire injected into his agile voice.

A first-rate cast is supported by René Jacobs and Concerto Köln on fine form, though the continuo line is sometimes less than ideally clear. The recording is excellent.

Giulio Cesare

Kristina Hammarström mez Giulio Cesare Emanuela Galli sop Cleopatra Mary-Ellen Nesi mez Sesto Irini Karaianni mez Cornelia Romina Basso mez Tolomeo Tassis Christoyannis bar Achilla Petros Magoulas bass Curio Nikos Spanatis counterten Nireno Orchestra of Patras / George Petrou

(Dabringhaus und Grimm)

This new recording of Handel’s complete 1724 text, studio-made but based on a stage production in Thessaloniki, comfortably holds its own with the two fine versions from René Jacobs (see above) and Marc Minkowski (Archiv). George Petrou directs his alert period band with style and sensibility. His tempo choices are occasionally extreme – languorously protracted in Cornelia’s lament ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’, frenetically driven in Caesar’s ‘Qual torrente’. Several times, especially in the first act, one wanted the extended secco recitatives to move more fluently. But despite minor quibbles, the performance, animated by a colourful continuo battalion (two harpsichords, plus strumming theorbo), equals Minkowski, and surpasses Jacobs, in theatrical verve.

Giulio Cesare is in essence a celebration of the power of sex, embodied in the infinitely alluring figure of Cleopatra. Barbara Schlick, for Jacobs, was bright and nimble, but distinctly virginal, while Magdalena Kozená, for Minkowski, combined sensuality with a certain regal detachment. Emanuela Galli certainly generates a stronger sexual charge than either. She sings her playful numbers in the first act with knowing, coquettish grace, then finds warmer, more voluptuous colourings for the ravishing ‘Parnassus’ tableau, ‘V’adoro pupille’. After Cleopatra has herself succumbed to the passion she aroused in Caesar, Galli brings a tragic intensity and individuality of nuance to ‘Se pietà’ and ‘Piangerò’. Occasionally, though, her taste in ornamentation seems questionable – more Verdi’s Violetta than Handel’s Cleopatra.

Dubiously extravagant da capo embellishments also mar one or two other arias. Still, with the partial exception of Irini Karaianni’s dignified but rather matt-toned Cornelia (far less affecting than Jacobs’s Bernarda Fink), the singers, all round, compare well with their counterparts on the rival recordings. Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström has both the swashbuckling vigour for Caesar’s heroic arias and the intense inwardness for his great soliloquy at Pompey’s tomb. Though inclined to go berserk in da capos, Romina Basso’s androgynous contralto makes a superb Ptolemy: sleazy, insinuating, neurotically unstable, yet without the hint of camp petulance that countertenors in the role seem unable to avoid. She uses her words more vividly than any of the other singers bar Mary-Ellen Nesi, whose Sextus – fiery, headstrong and thrillingly sung – is surely the finest on disc. Sextus’s magnificent ‘vengeance’ aria ‘L’angue offeso’ is a highlight of the whole performance. The incisive-toned Tassis Christoyannis makes a high-testosterone, impulsive Achilla.

Here’s a Giulio Cesare to return to at least as often as the rival versions, for much superb -Handel-singing, for the lively and inventive continuo playing, and for a dramatic flair and immediacy that, at its best, eclipses all comers.

 

'Cleopatra'

Natalie Dessay sop Sonia Prina contr Stephen Wallace counterten Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm

(Erato)

In advance of their participation in a production of Giulio Cesare at the Palais Garnier, frequent collaborators Natalie Dessay and Emmanuelle Haïm recorded a programme of Cleoptra’s arias that contains not only the usual suspects (‘V’adoro, pupille’, ‘Se pietà’, ‘Piangerò’, ‘Da tempeste’) but also four of the Egyptian Queen’s other arias, two of which are premiere recordings of intriguing soliloquies that Handel composed fully in his autograph manuscript but then decided (rightly) to replace with entirely different and more famous material: he supplanted the animated heroic aria ‘Per dar vita all’idol mio’ with the tragic lament ‘Se pietà’ to convey Cleopatra’s desperate fear yet heroism as Cesare flees to fight the henchmen of her brother Tolomeo, and the mournful siciliano ‘Troppo crudeli siete’ was scrapped in favour of the bittersweet ‘Piangerò’ to illustrate the imprisoned Queen’s pessimism before the lieto fine is eventually established. If nothing else, this album enables us to hear both final thoughts and -discarded drafts consecutively, and allows us the chance to decide whether or not Handel was -correct to sacrifice two excellent climactic arias in favour of radically different ideas offering more potent dramatic sublimity.

The performances are consistently attractive. Le Concert d’Astrée’s accomplished playing extends to the Overture and two bellicose sinfonias, the latter of which provide zesty variety to proceedings. Dessay’s singing is never less than dazzling, and the stratospheric ornaments in the da capo of ‘Venere bella’ are softly sensual. Despite instinctive reservations about its contrived strategy, this album holds together pretty well thanks to Dessay’s gorgeous voice, Haïm’s experienced direction of her capable orchestra and, of course, the modest matter of getting inside the mind of an inspired composer.

Hercules

Gidon Saks bass-bar Hercules Anne Sofie von Otter mez Dejanira Richard Croft ten Hyllus Lynne Dawson sop Iole David Daniels counterten Lichas Marcos Pujol bar Priest of Jupiter Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre; Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski

(Archiv)

Hercules has never quite occupied the place it merits in the Handel canon, even though it includes some of his most powerfully dramatic music. This is understood by Marc Minkowski, whose intentions towards the work are made clear from the start of the Overture. But he’s also intent on maintaining its dramatic pace and emphasising its range of feeling. His cast is well able to share his dramatic vision. Von Otter excels as Dejanira. This, rather than Hercules himself, is the central role, carrying the work’s chief expressive weight. There’s some beautifully shaped singing as in her opening air she mourns Hercules’ absence, and she copes well with Minkowski’s demanding tempo in ‘Begone, my fears’. Lynne Dawson makes a delightful Iole, crystalline, airy, rhythmic, but able to call on more intensity where needed. ‘My breast with tender pity swells’ is truly lovely. Lichas’ music is done with refinement but also vigour by David Daniels. Richard Croft, though often hurried by Minkowski, sings much of Hyllus’ music with elegance, and his delicate sustained pianissimo in the da capo of ‘From celestial seats descending’, one of the most inspired pieces in the score, is remarkable. The choral singing is strong, secure, responsive, though the French choir is rather less euphonious than the best English ones. The orchestral playing is duly alert. This account benefits from fewer cuts than his rival Gardiner and superior solo singing.

 

Orlando 

Owen Willetts, Karina Gauvin, Allyson McHardy, Amanda Forsythe, Nathan Berg; Pacific Baroque Orchestra / Alexander Weimann

(ATMA Classique)

This recording of Orlando (1733) was made after a mostly Canadian production at the Vancouver Early Music Festival. Alexander Weimann’s pacing of the action, choice of tempi and shaping of orchestral ritornellos are frequently marvellous; it is a breath of fresh air to hear Zoroastro’s first aria, ‘Lascia Amor’, paced correctly according to Handel’s tempo marking of Allegro, mà non troppo (Nathan Berg’s articulation of his coloratura and calmly authoritative characterisation are spot-on). Likewise, Orlando’s ensuing ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ is truly an andante, allowing Owen Willetts to sing poetically rather than merely heroically, accompanied by elegantly swaying horns; the orchestra accompanies ‘Fammi combattere’ with subtler than usual shading. There is no resort to clumsy clattering and unbridled over-egging, not even when Orlando’s grip on sanity deteriorates in Act 2; the mad scene benefits from allowing the musical irony to speak for itself.

Amanda Forsythe’s agile singing in Dorinda’s ‘O care parolette’ is so nonchalantly frothy that I can easily forgive the dubious use of organ continuo (which crops up from time to time throughout a performance that is otherwise exemplary for style and sense); her plaintively beautiful arioso ‘Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti’ and siciliana ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’ are alone worth buying this for. Angelica’s soliloquy ‘Verdi piante’ has the compelling atmosphere of hushed pastoral secrecy, albeit marred by Karina Gauvin’s tendency to transplant her last cadences up an octave. Forsythe’s inconsolable Dorinda is impeccable in the trio that closes Act 1 (‘Consolati, o bella, gentil pastorella’), but the potential subtext that the over-protesting Angelica and Medoro are more interested in singing a love duet to each other is glossed over because of the fleet-footed tempo (arguably ‘right’, but I prefer Christie’s ‘wrong’ languid pacing here); Medoro’s ‘Verdi allori’ is mildly undermined by Allyson McHardy’s meandering formulaic embellishments, and you can sense Berg endeavouring in vain to inject swifter momentum into Weimann’s stealthy approach to Zoroastro’s ‘Sorge infausta’. Recitatives lack emotional intensity when Act 3 reaches its crisis but nonetheless the afflicted title-hero’s sleep scene is blissfully cathartic. ATMA’s libretto omits imperative stage directions, such as the explanation of how Zoroastro restores Orlando to sanity, remorse and the path to glory. Rare misfires are only minor quibbles about one of the most consistently charming Handel opera recordings I’ve reviewed in ages.

Christie is very much concerned with a smooth and generally rich texture and with delicacy of rhythmic shaping. His management of the recitative could hardly be bettered and mo-ments of urgency or of other kinds of emotional stress are tellingly handled. Sometimes he favours a rather sustained style in the arias, making the textures seem airless and heavy, and the lines within them too smooth. However, to set against it there’s his exceptional delicacy of timing, his careful but always natural-sounding moulding of cadences and other critical moments in the score. Not many Handel interpreters show this kind of regard for such matters and it’s a delight to hear Handel’s music so lovingly nurtured; it also helps the singers to convey meaning. The cast is very strong. The title-role is taken by a mezzo, Patricia Bardon, who draws a firm and often slender line, with that gleam in her tone that can so enliven the impact of a lowish mezzo – the famous Mad scene is magnificent. The Sleep scene, with sweet, soft-toned playing of the violette marine,is lovely.

Hilary Summers offers a sensitively sung Medoro, pure and shapely in line. Harry van der Kamp makes a finely weighty Zoroastro, with plenty of resonance in his lower register; the last aria in particular is done in rousing fashion. As Angelica, Rosemary Joshua’s musicianship comes through in her attractive phrasing and timing. Rosa Mannion’s Dorinda is no less full of delights, catching the character to perfection. Hogwood’s lighter orchestral textures are appealing (L’Oiseau-Lyre) but the refinement of detail in the newer set is equally admirable.

Partenope

Philippe Jaroussky, Karina Gauvin, John Mark Ainsley, Teresa Iervolino, Emöke Barath, Luca Tittoto; Il Pomo d'Oro / Riccardo Minasi

(Erato)

‘[Senesino] put me in a sweat in telling me that Parthenope was likely to be brought on the stage, for it is the very worst book (excepting one) that I ever read in my whole life…’ (Owen Swiney)

All the reasons why Partenope was originally rejected by London’s Royal Academy of Music in 1726 – frivolity of tone, lack of extended arias and too much recitative – are those which make it so natural a fit for a contemporary audience. EJ Dent describes the libretto as ‘Shakespearean’, putting his finger on the unusual balance of dramatic modes Stampiglia and Handel achieve in a story that ends in a double wedding but could just as easily end in tragedy. Shorter arias distil all Handel’s mature melodic instincts into more emotionally concentrated expressions, while longer recitatives allow for quicker, wittier interplay and more detailed character development.

Which makes it all the more baffling that this is only the third commercial recording of the opera, joining Sigiswald Kuijken (1979) and Christian Curnyn (2004), as well as the DVD production directed by Francisco Negrin (2008). While all three have their interest, and Curnyn’s treatment has been a valuable benchmark since its release, Riccardo Minasi’s triumphant new recording is so sensitive to the work’s shifting tone – by turns buoyant and light-footed, tender, humorous (just listen to the mock-martial relish of the horns in Rosmira’s Act 1 closer ‘Io seguo sol fiero’) – and so impeccably cast as to bring this unusual work’s virtues into sharp new focus.

At the centre of Handel’s love-tangle is Queen Partenope, who must choose between her many suitors: Emilio, the pugnacious Prince of neighbouring Cuma, smooth-talking Arsace, who has abandoned his beloved Rosmira to pursue the queen, and the shyly sincere Armindo.

An onstage battle adds political scope and instrumental colour to an essentially domestic narrative, generating a thrilling sequence of orchestral and vocal episodes. The introductory Marche captures the difference between Curnyn and Minasi. Precise, measured and texturally clean, Curnyn’s battle would do any British general proud, but Minasi’s is the florid, boisterous conflict of opera, bright with jangling percussion additions and the sword-clatter commentary of Federica Bianchi and Davide Pozzi’s harpsichords. You can smell the blood and the braggadocio.

Is there a better Handelian soprano than Karina Gauvin currently working? Her Partenope does nothing to dull the sheen on the Canadian’s crown. The queen must remain a cipher to the end, never showing her hand. Gauvin twitches her lovers’ strings just tightly enough to set them dancing. We hear the relish in her extraordinary ‘Spera o godi’, in which she simultaneously praises Armindo and punishes Arsace (Minasi’s orchestra her willing co-conspirator), and the casual brilliance of her top C in her opening aria ‘L’amor ed il destin’ is deployed with calculated ease. Yet there’s a shy warmth to her ‘Si, scherza, si’ that says that the seductress has finally become a woman worthy of the faithful Armindo.

In contrast to Lawrence Zazzo’s vocal muscularity (Chandos) and René Jacobs’s forceful delivery (Sony), Philippe Jaroussky’s Arsace is all softness – more a lover than a fighter, and the more persuasive for it. He croons his promises to the forsaken Rosmira with such sincerity (‘Ch’io parta?’) that neither she nor we can refuse him. Jaroussky’s bright, light instrument captures both the character’s peevish vanity (‘Sento amor’) and his fragile charm (‘Ma quai note’).

Casting a soprano as Armindo rather than a countertenor (as both Curnyn and Kuijken do) gives the role an innocence that articulates a poignant contrast with the deceitful Arsace. Emoke Baráth makes an exquisite, persuasive suitor. The Hungarian singer grows from tentative delicacy in Act 1 to ringing joy in Act 3 – a constant of sincerity in this group of dissemblers. Mezzo Teresa Iervolino makes much of Rosmira’s low-lying music, retaining vocal colour even in the depths of ‘Furie son dell’alma mia’, and together with bass Luca Tittoto (wonderfully characterful and agile in the supporting role of Ormonte, chief of guards) brings an anchoring depth to a work dominated by so many upper voices.

Minasi follows previous recordings in using Handel’s original 1730 score as the basis for his performing edition, but also steals judiciously from later revivals – notably an extra aria for Armindo (‘Come se ti vedro’) and an attractive trumpet sinfonia. The result, burnished with the conductor’s swift speeds and careful pacing, is a recording that needs no visuals to bring its story to life, an opera lively with human insight and understanding – to comedy what Giulio Cesare is to tragedy.

Minasi has made a masterpiece, catching the passing glances and sideways smiles of Handel’s score, and transforming them into something of real dramatic substance. Minasi’s back-catalogue is exceptional but this is his finest work yet.

Rinaldo

David Daniels counterten Rinaldo Cecilia Bartoli mez Almirena Gerald Finley bar Argante Luba Orgoná≈ová sopArmida Bejun Mehta counterten Christian Sorcerer Mark Padmore ten Herald Daniel Taylor counterten Eustazio Bernarda Fink contr Goffredo Catherine Bott sop Siren I Ana-Maria Rincón sop Donna, Siren II Academy of Ancient Music / Christopher Hogwood

(Decca)

In a sense, Rinaldo is at once Handel’s most familiar and unfamiliar opera: familiar because, as his lavish first stage work for London, it has been much written about both by modern historians and by the composer’s contemporaries; unfamiliar because the Handel opera revival of recent years has largely passed it by. Although there are numerous recordings of its two hit slow arias – ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Cara sposa’ – this is its first complete studio recording for over 20 years. It may not be Handel’s most dramatically effective work (Act 3 marks time rather), and its magic effects and transformation scenes no doubt make it a tricky prospect for opera companies, but in many ways its rich orchestration and impressive set-piece arias make it ideal for recording. That much makes this release a welcome sight already; add the de luxe cast Decca has assembled for the purpose and it begins to look irresistible.

Top of the bill come David Daniels as the eponymous crusader knight and Cecilia Bartoli as his love Almirena. Daniels’s heart-stopping countertenor voice is one of the marvels of our age. It isn’t big, and though he’s technically untroubled by the virtuoso runs of the quicker arias, some may feel it lacks some of the heroic power expected of a warrior; but there’s an inner strength to it, and in the love music he’s utterly convincing. Bartoli is equally impressive, though her singing is less well suited to Handel. She can deliver the most demanding music with almost frightening ease and force, and, as ever, she throws herself into her role, but one can’t help thinking that a more natural and unaffected style would have been more appropriate for arias such as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Augeletti che cantate’. The rest of the cast is almost unwaveringly strong. Daniel Taylor is slightly less technically secure or forceful than the others (which is hardly a criticism), but he does well enough with the opera’s least effective role as Goffredo’s brother Eustazio.

Christopher Hogwood’s direction is typically neat and well-mannered. He isn’t a natural opera conductor – others may have found more magic in the enchanted gardens and more sensuality in the sirens who lure Rinaldo, and you sometimes get the feeling that he’s rushing the singers at important moments – but he has an unerring sense of tempo, and the opera as a whole is well paced. The Academy of Ancient Music plays to a high standard, backed up by a startlingly virtuoso performance on the Drottningholm thunder machine and by some genuine birdsong at the beginning of Act 2.

This version may not be the last word on the opera, but for all-round standard of performance and production it currently wins hands down and it will take some beating.

Rodelinda

Simone Kermes sop Rodelinda Marijana Mijanović contr Bertarido Steve Davislim ten Grimoaldo Sonia Prina contr Eduige Marie-Nicole Lemieux contr Unulfo Vito Priante bar Garibaldo Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis

(Archiv)

Rodelinda, first performed in February 1725, is a stunning work dominated by a title-heroine who remains devoted to her supposedly dead husband Bertarido and scorns the advances of his usurper Grimoaldo. The potency of Handel’s score was enhanced by the complexity of the villain, whose lust-driven cruelty gradually crumbles into a desire to abdicate in order to find spiritual peace. The scene in which the penitent tyrant’s life is saved from assassination by the fugitive Bertarido is among Handel’s greatest dramatic moments.

Simone Kermes is full of feisty courage, an assertive woman for whom Bertarido would credibly risk death to be reunited with. She takes no prisoners in some extravagant cadenzas, and sings ‘Morrai, si’ with thrillingly viscious venom. At the other extreme, ‘Ritorna o cara’ is simply gorgeous. There are some weaknesses. Marijana Mijanović’s Bertarido often slips under pitch on long notes and uses indiscriminate vibrato instead of singing through phrases. Her deficiencies with tuning and idiomatic expression are highlighted in two duets with Kermes (one not recorded before), particularly when Handel demands that they sing sustained notes in unison. There is a good case for using a fruity female contralto in castrato roles instead of an angelic countertenor but why Archiv seems keen to record Mijanović’s inadequate performances of Handel roles for his star castrato, Senesino, is incomprehensible. A cursory comparison of Mijanović’s bizarrely unattractive ‘Dove sei’ with any of the impressive contributions from fellow contraltos Marie-Nicole Lemieux or Sonia Prina indicates that either would have better suited the role.

Otherwise, this has an abundance of good things. Il Complesso Barocco have sounded undernourished on some previous recordings but here play with admirable vitality and dramatic subtlety. Curtis has obviously worked hard to encourage his string players to understand what the singers are communicating: each aria is impeccably interpreted and intelligently paced. On the whole, Curtis’s passion and experience ensure another typically persuasive and theatrical vindication of Handel’s genius.

Tamerlano

Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic, John Mark Ainsley, Karina Gauvin, Ruxandra Donose, Pavel Kudinov; Il Pomo d’Oro / Riccardo Minasi

(Naive)

What a wonderful opera this is. Tamerlano comes between Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda: not nearly as well known as either, it’s fully their equal. It opened at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on October 31, 1724; when it was revived in November 1731 Handel omitted the trio in Act 2 and added an aria for Leone. This recording follows the latter version but reinstates the trio. Crucially, it also adopts the cuts in the secco recitative that Handel made in 1731; it remains a long opera, with the secco recitative accounting for about a quarter of the whole. It is also a dark opera. The proud Ottoman sultan Bajazet shows nothing but contempt for his captor, Tamerlano (Timur, alias Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). After Bajazet’s death – offstage, but only just – there’s the bleakest ‘happy ending’ chorus imaginable, in which the heroine doesn’t join. The dramatic situation is striking – which is the hero, which the villain? – and the music superb.

The chief characteristic of this performance is the unbridled energy of the orchestra. Time and again, in fast music, the violins speed towards the end of a phrase like a bull charging a gate; further impetus comes from swelling on tied notes. Tamerlano’s first aria is marked by heavy accents, while the strings surge and stab away in Bajazet’s exciting ‘Ciel e terra’. It is immensely invigorating, but there are calmer episodes too: soft clarinets for Irene’s siciliano and gentle recorders for ‘Vivo in te’, a duet in the vein of ‘Io t’abbraccio’ in the following year’s Rodelinda.

John Mark Ainsley makes a heroic Bajazet, deeply moving in the broken phrases of his death scene; Andronico is tenderly sung by Max Emanuel Cencic; and Ruxandra Donose brings lovely warm tone to Irene. Why does she speak over the music in her arietta? Karina Gauvin is splendidly forthright as Asteria: no shrinking violet, she makes the singers for Trevor Pinnock and George Petrou sound bland in comparison. I find Xavier Sabata slightly too hooty for comfort but he too is well inside his part.

Petrou’s account of the 1724 version, recitatives and all, is still to be prized. There are good things in Pinnock’s live recording (1731, roughly, minus four arias). But newcomers should start with this throat-grabbing performance from Riccardo Minasi and Il Pomo d’Oro.

Tamerlano has done quite well on disc but this is the first recording to adopt the version that Handel decided on for the premiere. The story is grim. Tamerlano – Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, now generally called Timur – has captured the Ottoman sultan, Bajazet, whose daughter Asteria he proposes to marry. In the end he marries Irene, to whom he was betrothed, and restores Asteria to her lover Andronico, but only after Bajazet has killed himself.

The audience’s sympathies lie with the proud father. The part of Bajazet is usually taken by a tenor; but it lies very low, and it is here sensibly given to a baritone. Whereas Marlowe’s Bajazeth spectacularly brains himself onstage, in this version the sultan takes poison and is carried off to die. The music moves from defiance to tenderness and back in recitative and arioso, which Tassis Christoyannis handles with consummate skill. He also expresses the character’s dignity and resolve in his Act 1 arias with firm, focused tone.

Mata Katsuli is equally impressive as his daughter. Asteria is a strong character who accepts Tamerlano as her husband in order to murder him in bed, but she is desolate when she thinks Andronico has betrayed her. Katsuli sings with a most affecting passion, combined movements and Minuets (which increasingly with tenderness.

Mary-Ellen Nesi makes a strong Andronico, the part written for Senesino. She is rich-toned, as at home in powerful accompanied recitative as in the semiquaver runs of ‘Più d’una tigre’. Irini Karaianni is attractively smoky in her siciliano; lovely clarinets but here, as elsewhere, the continuo is inaudible in places. Nicholas Spanos as Tamerlano, ‘Scythian Shephearde’ though he be, is properly imperial, and he dispatches the coloratura of his last aria with an appropriately wild brilliance. Petros Magoulas has the right bluffness for Leone.

Apart from the problem of balance, there is nothing but praise for George Petrou and his period-instrument orchestra. Just to hear the swelling on a sustained bass note (in the Overture and in Tamerlano’s second aria) is to be reassured that all will be well. All is indeed well, and this recording is a most rewarding surprise.

Tolomeo

Ann Hallenberg sop Tolomeo Karina Gauvin sop Seleuce Pietro Spagnoli bar Araspe Anna Bonitatibus mez Elisa Romina Basso mez Alessandro

Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis hpd

(Archiv)

Tolomeo was the last opera Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music before the opera company dissolved in 1728. It is a fine work that combines pastoral charm with some powerfully melodramatic scenes. The best known aria is ‘Non lo dirò col labbro’ (famous in Somervell’s arrangement ‘Silent Worship’), here sung sweetly by Romina Basso.

There is not a weak link in this superb cast, with all the singers perfect for the vocal and dramatic properties of their roles. Ann Hallenberg’s supple coloratura is perfectly aligned with dramatic awareness and melodic sensibility in numerous accompanied recitatives and arias: the sleep scene in Act 1 is beautifully judged and the hedonistic accompagnato that precedes ‘Stile amare’ is gripping. Anna Bonitatibus’s singing is magnificent, and her ornamentation and cadenza are fabulous. Pietro Spagnoli sings the tyrant Araspe firmly but one also feels a degree of sympathy for his hopeless infatuation with Ptolemy’s wife Seleuce. Karina Gauvin’s singing is dramatic and colourful: her interplay with two recorders in ‘Fonti amiche’ is simple yet ravishing and the hushed ‘Dite, che fa’ (with muted strings and offstage echoes from Ptolemy) is utterly gorgeous.

Alan Curtis’s recent Handel opera recordings have been admirable in patches but flawed by inconsistent casts and occasionally weedy instrumental playing. It is a delight to hear the Italian-based American harpsichordist and Il Complesso Barocco back on top-notch form in this delectable performance. The overture oozes with charisma and the orchestral playing is beautifully paced and articulated. Each ritornello shows finesse and a deep-rooted fondness for the subtleties in Handel’s writing. Recitatives are never sluggish but Curtis does not force proceedings unnaturally, allowing the language and rhetoric enough space to work their magic. He has all the energy and dynamism necessary but also realises that courtliness and elegance are vital elements of Handel’s music. All in all, this is a perfect Handel opera recording.

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