The 50 greatest Handel recordings – Part 4

Gramophone Wed 12th October 2016

Our journey through the greatest Handel recordings continues, from 'Theodora' to 'Flavio'

Verdi's Macbeth

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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.

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