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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger





 

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Scenes from ‘Julius Caesar’ (sung in English)
Act 1

‘Caesar! Caesar! Egypt acclaims thee’ [1’41"]
‘Killed in tribute, fair land of Egypt’ [2’05"]
‘Curio, Caesar has come…’ [2’33"]
‘Tyrant, avoid my sight’ [3’58"]
‘Spirit of mighty Pompey’ [2’57"]
‘Caesar! A generous destiny’ [1’08"]
‘How silently, how slyly’ [6’31"]
Act 2

‘Have you done as I ordered, faithful Nirenus?’ [2’48"]
‘Lamenting, complaining of Caesar’s disdaining’ [4’37"]
‘Fly then, fly, O my heart’ [0’42"]
‘Fleet o’er flowery meadow gliding’ [7’48"]
‘Ah gods! What do I see?’ [2’49"]
‘In anger and fury I’ll turn on the foe’ [1’41"]
‘They will kill him’ [1’12"]
Act 3

Symphony [0’43"]
‘From the perils of the ocean’ [2’06"]
‘Zephyrs! Zephyrs! Come to mine aid’ [6’35"]
‘Nirenus, the battle is fought and lost’ [2’32"]
‘See in spate the high cataract storming’ [4’33"]
Symphony [2’59"]
‘Here, Curio and your legions’ [2’27"]
‘Dearest!’ ‘Fairest!’ [5’45"]
‘Long, long may Egypt continue’ [0’29"]
‘Proclaim we all great Caesar’s glory’ [0’52"]
‘A vow I give you’ [0’57"]
‘Proclaim we all great Caesar’s glory’ [0’55"]
Julius Caesar: Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
Curio: Christopher Booth-Jones (baritone)
Cornelia: Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano)
Sextus: Della Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Cleopatra: Valerie Masterson (soprano)
Ptolemy: James Bowman (countertenor)
Achillas: John Tomlinson (bass)
Nirenus: David James (countertenor)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London; 1- 7 August 1984
CHANDOS CHAN 3072 [74’25"]

This CD is an excellent souvenir of Dame Janet Baker as a peerless performer of Handel. She was a fine, dramatic opera singer, perhaps most effective in the works of composers such as Monteverdi, Cavalli and Gluck but, above all, in Mozart and Handel. The recording from which these excerpts are taken was made by EMI, and I think it took place in conjunction with a full production of the opera by English National Opera. At a time when that opera company’s fortunes appear to be at a low ebb in all sorts of ways it is good to be reminded of a more successful chapter in its history.

The cast list is an impressive array of excellent British singers. However, as the focus of this disc is on Dame Janet we get little chance to hear her colleagues with the exception of Valerie Masterson. What we do hear of the other members of the cast, however, indicates performances of a uniformly high standard.

Valerie Masterson is a touching, vulnerable Cleopatra. Her ‘Lamenting, complaining’ (track 9) is sung with an aching beauty which amply justifies Caesar’s recitative part way through ("Great Jove in his heaven has no melody to equal such peerless singing.") This lovely aria shows Handel at his lyrical peak and Miss Masterson gives a performance of it to treasure. She is equally fine in the much happier duet, ‘Dearest, fairest’ (track 22) where her voice blends beautifully with Baker’s.

Vocally, the star of this CD is Dame Janet. The role of Caesar might have been written for her and she conveys admirably the various facets of the hero as portrayed by Handel. In her opening aria, ‘Kneel in tribute’ (track 2) she is suitably imperious, with all the divisions absolutely secure and employed to great dramatic effect. In ‘Fleet o’er flowery meadows gliding’ (track 11), where she is partnered by an excellent violin soloist, she catches to perfection the impetuous ardour of Caesar, eager to meet Cleopatra. The most famous of Caesar’s arias, ‘How silently, how slyly’ (track 7) is delivered superbly with some really imaginative decoration. Once again, the obbligato (a horn this time) is very fine.

If Dame Janet is the heroine of this enterprise then the hero is Sir Charles Mackerras. During his long and distinguished career he has only worked to a fairly limited extent with period instrument ensembles. Most of the time, as here, the orchestras he conducts play on modern instruments. However, in everything he does, from Handel to Janáček, his work is unfailingly stylish, informed and, in the truest sense, authentic both to the text and to the spirit of the music. Suffice to say that this performance is up to his usual standards with the recitatives paced most convincingly and all rhythms lively and alert. He gets first rate playing from the ENO orchestra and equally good singing from the chorus. As for the soloists, they receive from him the kind of support in which they must have delighted.

This selection includes two complete scenes (Act II, Scene 1 and Act 111, Scene 3) and the rest of the excerpts make sense out of context. Chandos helpfully supply not only full texts and translations but also a synopsis of the whole opera which distinguishes those parts of the action not covered by these extracts. There is an interesting note which, I suspect, came from the original release of the full opera. Unfortunately much of the note concentrates on the role of Cleopatra and scarcely at all on that of Caesar but it still includes some interesting comments about Handel and opera seria. The recorded sound is first rate.

Those who insist on hearing Handel’s operas sung in Italian and played on period instruments may pass by this CD. That would be a great pity for it gives a very good representation of a supreme Handelian in a major role. If you value distinguished, stylish and dramatic singing and conducting of Handel then you should add this disc to your collection without delay. For the general collector who may not want a full Handel opera this is an ideal chance to hear one of the very finest singers of the post war generation singing music by a composer who always brought out the very considerable best in her.

Chandos deserve our thanks for making this recording available once again. Strongly recommended.

John Quinn



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