Brit star! would I were steadfast as thou art!
Rule Britannia? Often during the Olympics that famous number from Thomas Arne’s 1740 Alfred echoed in my ears. Unfortunately based on three recent CD releases, it occurs to me that Britain no long rules (as it clearly once did) when it comes to performing works by its favorite adopted son, German-born George Frideric Handel.
When I was a budding bambino-barocco around twoscore years ago, relatively few of Handel’s vocal works had been recorded compared to the plethora today. And what was available seemed nearly always to be British: oratorios and a few operas with Alfred Deller in Sosarme or Jennifer Vyvyan as Semele. And this wasn’t just the case with Handel—I owe my early fondness for 17th century Venetian opera to those miraculous Glyndebourne recordings of Raymond Leppard’s editions of Monteverdi and, particularly, Cavalli. And Leppard’s two bewitching LPs of eighteenth century overtures gave me my first scintillating taste of Rameau.
After I had eagerly consumed the meager record holdings of my local public library, I spent the proceeds from my first job during high school to purchase a reel-to-reel deck so I could order some of the tapes listed in the mouth-watering catalogues I’d received from the many “pirates” who ran ads at the back of my High Fidelity magazine. Soon I was savoring marvelous live Handel performances conducted by now nearly-forgotten names like Anthony Lewis and Charles Farncombe featuring superb singers like Heather Harper, Valerie Masterson, Patricia Kern, Alexander Young, and, my personal revelation of those years, Janet Baker.
The now-defunct CD company Ponto released an impressive live Baker collection including four Handel titles, the two most important being Admeto (or Admetus, as it was sung in English) with the divine Sheila Armstrong as Antigona to Baker’s Alceste and a Tamerlano which remains the best version I’ve ever heard. All the Baker-Ponto releases are well worth hunting down.
Probably the best-known of the broadcasts I bought is Farncombe’s Rodelinda sung in (intelligible!) English by an ideal Joan Sutherland and Margreta Elkins (yes, both were Australian but should still be considered part of this British Handel opera renaissance). I discovered that even performances that didn’t originate in the UK often included British singers like a Riccardo Primo from the Göttingen Handel Festival featuring the great countertenor Paul Esswood in the title role. I suspect a reason so many of these performers were so powerful was they sprang from a Handel tradition that had survived since the composer’s time.
Although Handel‘s operas were rarely performed until their 20thcentury rediscovery began in 1920s Germany, his oratorios nearly always remained part of the United Kingdom’s musical scene. Surely these British singers and conductors had regularly performed his music throughout their musical lives, so that when groups like the hugely important Handel Opera Society were founded in the 1950s there was already a foundation of artists well-versed in matters Handelian to build upon.
Perhaps due to the explosion of the compact disc, my band of “pirates” slowly vanished in the early 1980s, so I turned to that new medium which clearly exploited the HIP explosion; original-instrument groups provided an urgent excuse for CD companies to re-record the standard repertoire and more!
Nearly every month new releases arrived (often by Handel) from John Eliot Gardiner or Trevor Pinnock or Christopher Hogwood. Many remain near-definitive statements, although occasionally the vocal recordings (particularly Hogwood’s) featured that new species of “early music specialist” singer—bland, white-voiced, straight-toned—girls who sounded like boys or vice versa. However, there were also magnificent exceptions—Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Jennifer Smith (yes, she’s Portuguese but British by adoption), Sarah Walker, John Mark Ainsley, Della Jones, etc.
After Robert King’s exemplary series of the rarer Handel oratorios (recorded, like his indispensable Purcell Odes and Welcome Songs, for Hyperion) concluded in the 1990s, British Handel recordings became less and less de rigeur. Therefore when these three recent CDs of music from very early and very late parts of Handel’s career arrived from La Cieca I noticed all were from a (relatively) younger generation of British performers.
All three feature English soprano Lucy Crowe, generally considered one of Britain’s best singers of 18th century music, who makes her debut this November at the Metropolitan Opera as Servilia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, conducted by–Harry Bicket.
Il Caro Sassone: Handel in Italy from Harmonia Mundi USA is perhaps the most baffling of this trio. The English Concert has a long, illustrious history, particularly for its superb Handel series for Archiv under founder Trevor Pinnock. Since Pinnock’s departure, it has been less of a presence in the recording studio, which is sad because it’s still made up of some of the very best early music instrumentalists anywhere.
I would venture that Bicket is best known as the preferred conductor when American opera companies turn to Handel as he has a real talent for transforming a traditional opera house orchestra into a reasonably idiomatic baroque band. Unsurprisingly, Bicket led last season’s Rodelinda at the Met and Rinaldo at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (where he’d also conducted the previous season’s Hercules) and is scheduled to conduct in April 2013 the Met’s new Giulio Cesare which he first did there in 2007. Those past productions have been generally well done but lacking a distinctive point of view, and his ornamentation (to my taste) often veers over the top.
I’ve been even less convinced by recent work I’ve heard with early music groups including his English Concert. Their Purcell evening last fall featuring Andreas Scholl at Zankel Hall was, despite Scholl’s best efforts, disappointingly dull, and Bicket’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Juilliard was far too well-behaved and stylistically ultra-conservative.
And this CD featuring music Handel composed during his transformative first visit to Italy from 1706-1710 suffers from baffling programming decisions, often uneven singing from the usually lovely Crowe and occasionally uninspired orchestral playing. Sometimes, however, it all does come together nicely though.
Il Caro Sassone offers a hop, skip and a jump around the many astonishing sacred and secular works that flowed from Handel during that Italian sojourn. But instead of just concentrating on arias from the oratorios and operas or perhaps the many superb cantatas, we get two small-scale cantatas, two arias from the large-scale cantatas, one motet, two arias from the oratorios (yet none from either of the operas, despite Crowe’s having sung Poppea in Agrippina) with instrumental pieces like sinfonias from cantatas not included mixed in.
It all adds up to a hodgepodge that fails to give a coherent overview on Handel’s Italian period or to do justice to Crowe’s proven skills as a Handelian. Her voice is usually as sunny and glowing as her lustrous blonde hair, but here she sometimes sounds very ill at ease, straining hard to be dramatic, particularly in Armida abbandonata, a cantata which suits her not at all.
Harmonia Mundi USA has also issued the first-ever recording of the first version of Il Pastor fido, Handel’s second opera for London after his game-changing success with Rinaldo, but those two operas couldn’t be more different.
Based on Giovanni Guarini’s vastly influential 1590 play of the same name, this gentle pastorale from 1712 about lovesick shepherds eschews the outsized heroics and flamboyant scenic effects that made Handel the sensation of London the previous year. This rarely done work has generally languished in the shadow of the revision Handel made in 1734 for the celebrated castrato Carestini.
During that season at Covent Garden, Handel later added the dance prologue Terpsichore hoping to exploit his company’s newest attraction, the dancer Marie Sallé. Conductor David Bates, together with six young singers and his orchestra La Nuova Musica, fail to make any better a case for the first version than Nicholas McGegan did when he recorded the later works for Hungaroton.
Although both Paul Esswood and Derek Lee Ragin do very well in Carestini’s music (a happy surprise given McGegan’s usually dreadful taste in countertenors), neither approaches Ann Hallenberg’s brio in “Sento brillar,” the 1734 version’s hit showpiece–and rumored to be featured in an upcoming Hallenberg-Handel CD!
Bates, formerly a so-so countertenor, adopts such an earnest, careful approach that the work refuses to come to life. His smallish orchestra plays well enough but no vigor, no passion stirs these drippy shepherds. As I listened to the opera’s most unusual number—the nearly 20-minute, six-movement overture—plod along nicely, I wondered what was missing?
When I retrieved Pinnock’s splendid 1985 Handel Overtures CD, I found Pastor fido’s to be one of Handel’s most ravishing pieces, particularly the languorous Adagio eloquently played by the late, lamented oboist David Reichenberg.
While listening and relistening to the recording, I was constantly referring to the libretto to see who was singing since there’s a sameness to the female voices which makes telling one from the other difficult. Crowe, by far the best known singer, gets top billing but oddly Amarilli has only three arias, the fewest of the five leading characters.
Although she’s on finer form than on Il Caro sassone, there’s an unfortunate harshness to her high notes. As her lover Mirtillo, Anna Dennis’s plain, darkish soprano makes little of her six arias, but Katherine Manley’s lively, sweetly-sung Eurilla is most satisfying. As Dorinda, Madeleine Shaw’s promising mezzo handles her arias with a pleasing touch, if not a great deal of individuality, yet I would have preferred her to Dennis as Mirtillo.
South African countertenor Clint van der Linde who was sadly over-parted as Handel’s Orlando during last summer’s Philharmonia Baroque US tour finds the far less-challenging role of Silvio a more congenial fit. It’s unfortunate that Argentinian bass-baritone Lisandro Abadie enters only for the final scene as his Tirenio infuses the proceedings with a verve they’ve otherwise lacked. Unless one is determined to have every single Handel opera recording, it’s difficult to recommend purchasing this one.
Alceste is a late-career oddity—incidental music composed for a new version by Tobias Smollet of the Euripides play (already used by Handel for his opera Admeto) and planned for Covent Garden in 1750. Although Handel’s music was apparently put into rehearsal, the Smollet was canceled and the music never performed, but the ever-resourceful composer promptly reused most of the material in his 1751 one-act oratorio The Choice of Hercules which at least is a self-contained, unified work.
Alceste instead consists of discrete instrumental movements, choruses and arias for three soloists: Crowe, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.
The gem of the score is Gentle Morpheus, son of night, a ravishing soprano aria and Crowe’s best moment on all these CDs. Hulett, a name new to me, capably handles his often florid music, while Foster-Williams (who recently appeared at the Mostly Mozart Festival in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with Yannick Nézet-Séguin) agilely shows why he’s become one of the best bass-baritones in this repertoire.
Yet, for all the nice music-making here, I couldn’t help feeling I wanted “more,” so I pulled out my other recording of Alceste, one done many years ago by Hogwood.
Like the Pinnock Overtures CD, the music-making here is just more vibrant, more inspired. Christian Curnyn’s well-intentioned efforts pale next to Hogwood’s and the older recording has the advantage of including songs Handel wrote for John Milton’s Comus, whereas Curnyn simply adds a few instrumental pieces, including the superb Passacaille from Radamisto which just falls flat.
Among my Handel CDs, I noticed Curnyn’s Early Opera Company’s recordings of three big works on Chandos Chaconne, Semele, Partenope and Flavio. While, like Alceste, they feature talented Handel singers—mostly British regulars like Rosemary Joshua and Hilary Summers, with an occasional American like Kurt Streit or Richard Croft tossed in, after one or two listens, they have all ended up on the shelf unplayed.
I wonder if the recording studio has a dampening effect on both Crowe and Curnyn. I have heard Crowe live in Haydn, Purcell and Mozart with Gardiner, Christie and Langrée and always found her delightful and her broadcast Iole in the Chicago Lyric Hercules was particularly fine, but I wonder if recent roles like Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Gilda in Rigoletto and Janácek’s Vixen may have blemished her effectiveness in the 18th century repertoire.
And I heard Curnyn conduct an excellent Partenope at New York City Opera, more effective than the Chandos recording. In fact both Crowe and Curnyn are on their best form in a live Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno captured at the Wigmore Hall in early 2010 for the Wigmore LIVE label. (New Yorkers will get a rare chance to hear Handel’s Trionfo at Alice Tully Hall in late October conducted by William Christie as part of his annual residency at The Juilliard School leading student singers and Juilliard 415.)
In recent years I’ve noticed an awfully reactionary response by many British commentators to the increased prominence in Early Music of musicians from the Continent, including snippy “isolationist” responses to those groups. More than once I’ve read criticisms of those who would “Frenchify” or “Italianize” Handel (or Purcell), and I suspect that a dutiful “less is more” approach has become the politically correct way to perform this music in Britain, an approach which often turns out to be just not very interesting. In bending over backwards to do nothing “wrong,” there’s little risk-taking, few surprises.
Are these all “bad” recordings? Of course not! But when I ask myself: “Has something fresh and interesting been added to my knowledge of Handel?” “Does the recording help me hear this work in a new way?” “Is this new singer someone whom I am eager to hear again?” More often than not, the answer is “no”!
Perhaps then it’s no surprise that this fall’s new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the English National Opera stars an American Cesare and Cleopatra—Lawrence Zazzo and Anna Christy, along with Argentinian mezzo Daniela Mack as Sesto. Curnyn conducts, but for last summer’s new Rinaldo the Glyndebourne Festival imported Ottavio Dantone to lead a multinational cast that included only British countertenor Tim Mead in the smallish role of Eustazio; Mead reappears as the ENO’s Tolomeo, alongside the Irish contralto Patricia Bardon’s apparently inescapable Cornelia.
But perhaps there’s a change in the air: British singers are featured in all five principal roles in this fall’s tour of Handel’s Belshazzar by France’s Les Arts Florissants, and countertenor Iestyn Davies claims the title role of Rinaldo for Glyndebourne’s 2014 revival.
But then again several weeks ago in London the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks were programmed at the Proms for a high-profile televised performance on the BBC and who played those most English of Handel’s instrumental masterpieces with a great deal of imperfect panache? French early-music group Le Concert Spirituel–with 18 (!!) oboes–conducted by Hervé Niquet: