Handel Acis & Galatea

Author: 
Stanley Sadie
HANDEL Acis & Galatea

HANDEL Acis & Galatea

  • Acis and Galatea

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.'

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017