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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Parnasso in Festa (The festival on Parnassus for the Wedding of Thetis and Peleus) HWV73 (1734)
Diana Moore (mezzo) - Apollo, Euterpe
Carolyn Sampson (soprano) - Clio
Lucy Crowe (soprano) - Orfeo
Rebecca Outram (soprano) - Calliope
Ruth Clegg (alto) - Clori
Peter Harvey (bass) - Marte
The King’s Consort and Choir/Matthew Halls
rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 15-19 February, 24 March 2008. DDD.
Notes in English, French and German.
Text and 18th-century English translation included.
HYPERION CDA67701/2
[72:25 + 59:26] 
Experience Classicsonline


I’ve ‘sat’ on this recording for far too long in a fruitless attempt to know how to classify the work – is it a semi-opera, a masque, a divertissement or just a musical entertainment? Technically, it’s a serenata, but entertaining it most certainly is, so I’ll settle for calling it just that and get on with the task of recommending it, which I’m very pleased to do. In fact, I’ve decided to make it Recording of the Month in recognition of Hyperion’s enterprise in bringing the work to our attention in such a splendid performance. Above all, it’s very good to see that The King’s Consort is on such fine form under its new director.
 

With some justification, Hyperion advertise this premiere recording of Handel’s only full-fledged celebratory serenata as their major Autumn release. The music, composed for the marriage of Princess Anne and William of Orange in 1734, certainly deserves to be heard much more frequently, yet it isn’t even mentioned in the article on Handel in the Oxford Companion to Music. As for Hyperion’s other claim that the music is presented in a dazzling performance by an exceptional group of musicians, I readily concede it. 

To set Parnasso in the context of his better-known works: Orlando dates from 1733 and Alcina from 1735, so this was a very creative period for Handel. While it may not be quite in the same league as those masterpieces, its neglect is hard to understand in an age when we have good recordings of his similarly-themed early Italian works Aci, Polifemo e Galatea (1708) and Apollo e Dafne (1709-10). I’m not implying that these aren’t very well worth recording – they certainly are – but Parnasso is surely at least their equal. 

A word of warning to those for whom such things matter – if you’re well acquainted with Athalia, you’ll find that Handel rehashed much of the music here, together with some music from Apollo e Dafne. It was a common enough practice for Handel, Bach and many of their contemporaries – after all, no-one in London was likely to have heard Apollo and modern listeners are equally unlikely to be troubled by ‘borrowings’ which fit their new context so well. If we let such considerations worry us too much, we’d lose large chunks of Messiah and Bach’s Passions and Christmas Oratorio. 

The performers’ names almost guarantee the success of the operation, especially now that the King’s Consort has survived the traumas of the recent past and settled down under the direction of Matthew Halls. Though there are, of course, no other versions to compare, I can’t imagine the music receiving a better performance. 

A sprightly account of the Overture gets the enterprise off to a good start and demonstrates that all is as well as ever in the orchestral department, as is confirmed in the brief Sinfonia which opens Part 3 (CD2, track 14). 

Carolyn Sampson, the first soloist here, also features on another recent Handel recording, that of Messiah with The Sixteen (Coro COR16062); I find myself disagreeing with one reviewer of that recording, who suggests that her voice is too small for the work. Even that reviewer admits that she probably sounds better in other contexts, with different singers, so he might well agree with me in finding her excellent as Clio in Parnasso. In any case, I react very favourably to her voice and find it just right for the part as she summons the virgins to Apollo (CD1, track 2). 

The choir may not sound particularly virginal in their response, but they sing well here (CD1, tr.3) and elsewhere. Handel probably employed his soloists as the chorus, but the King’s Consort Choir very ably provide the support here. 

Diana Moore as Apollo sounds suitably imperious in outlining the purpose of their assembly (CD1, tr.5). Her voice, too, is just right for the part, with very little of the plumminess of tone which sometimes afflicts even the best mezzos and she blends well with the choir as they interweave in Deh! cantate un bell’amor and the ensuing recitative (CD1, tracks 5-9). Her second, brief, role, as Euterpe in Part 3, is equally well sung (CD2, tr.26-7). 

Lucy Crowe as Orfeo also comes into play in the middle of this section (track 7) in an ethereal performance of Spira al sen’ celeste ardore. References to the legend of Orpheus recur throughout the work, with recits and arias on CD2, tr.7-8 and 17-18, all equally well sung. The other female soloists are also very accomplished. 

The one male soloist, Peter Harvey as Marte, also makes an excellent fist of his part, suitably imperious but with a happy lightness to his voice, too, here (Del nume Lieo, CD1, tr.18) and when he reappears in Part 3 to pay his tribute to the happy couple, Io che degli avi accelsi (track 15). 

Every aspect of the presentation is first-class. It was a nice touch to use a contemporary English version (Oldmixon, 1734). Unfortunately, though I’m no great fan of Pope, the name Oldmixon reminds me that he was parodied in the Dunciad as wondering ‘Ah why, ye Gods! should two and two make four?’ and for being one of those ‘Who but to sink the deeper, rose the higher.’ (II. 286, 290). Whatever his contemporary reputation – largely ruined by Pope – his translation of Parnasso is more than acceptable. 

As usual, the notes are excellent, including the brief synopsis – despite the inclusion of a libretto, you’ll probably find this useful. So packed with information is the booklet that I couldn’t get it back inside the case without tearing it. Some companies have taken to using the round-cornered SACD cases for 2-CD sets; it would probably have been easier to get the booklet back into such a case, with its different arrangement for holding the booklet in place. I’m not sure why it was deemed appropriate to employ for the cover and rear insert a font which I should have thought more redolent of Wanted posters from a Western – the nearest font that I can find on my computer is Rockwell. 

Those are just about the only negative comments that I have; everything else fulfils the promise of the beautiful painting on the cover, a detail from Hendrik van Balen the Elder’s Banquet of the Gods. I first played this recording soon after the less than happy Naxos version of Semele (8.570431-3 – see review by Robert Hugill, who was also unimpressed), so my initial favourable impressions may have been due to the contrast with that set, but my pleasure has been renewed – if anything, augmented – with subsequent hearings. Excellent recording, too.
 
Brian Wilson


 


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