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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

George Frideric HANDEL
(1685 - 1759)
Acis and Galatea

Galatea – Julianne Baird (soprano)
Acis – Frederick Urrey (tenor)
Damon – David Price (tenor)
Polyphemus – Kevin Deas (bass)
Ama Deus Ensemble/Valentin Radu
Recorded 1996
Brilliant Handel Edition Volumes 17/18
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-17/18 [40.07+50.09]

Brilliant Classics

The original version of ‘Acis and Galatea’ was written for just five singers and a small instrumental ensemble. It was written for the Earl of Carnarvon (later the Duke of Chandos) for performance at his establishment. We know precious little about the origins of this work. Dating from 1718, both ‘Acis and Galatea’ and the oratorio ‘Esther’ (also written for the Duke of Chandos for similarly small forces) would become important in the development of English oratorio. But at the time of writing they were just occasional works and no-one recorded much about their genesis. The libretto for ‘Acis and Galatea’ is at least partly attributable to John Gay who was a member of a group of writers associated with the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Burlington.

Later on, Handel would re-work ‘Acis and Galatea’ as a serenata for performance in London. These later versions were generally bilingual and often included material from his earlier Italian cantata, ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’. The present recording uses the original 1718 version, which is arguably the most satisfactory of Handel’s versions of this piece. There is much to be said for the intimacy of a small-scale performance, with one player to a part and a chorus made up of the principals, especially when the performers show a keen feeling for Handel’s style. Unfortunately, on this recording the piece is given by rather larger forces. Though the performance gains in power and dramatics, it loses severely in terms of Handelian style and feeling.

The orchestra, The Ama Deus Ensemble, play the overture crisply if a little robustly, but I felt that the balance was wanting and the strings dominated the oboes rather too much. In the opening chorus the choir sound too large and the performance is too heavy and too loud. Larger forces do not preclude a chamber feel to the piece, but here no attempt seems to have been made. The conductor, Valentin Radu, has a rather large scale concept of the piece and seems to be happy to let his forces perform with minimal intervention. The performance would certainly have benefited from a little more shaping to some of the numbers. Radu’s tendency to set a tempo and let it run in a very 4-square manner is not helpful to either the piece or the performers.

The instrumental playing is not always up to scratch, there are tuning problems and in Galatea’s first aria the violin and recorders can sound scrappy. This is a shame as Julianne Baird, as Galatea, is one of the best things on the disc. She sings in a beautiful shapely manner and her distinctive plangent tones are apt for the part. From the first moment she opens her mouth you know that it will end in tears. Her way with recitative is equally as attractive and her horrified dialogue with Polyphemus in Act 2 is a high point of the performance.

As Acis, Frederick Urrey has an attractive tenor voice, but his tendency to apply vibrato to notes means that each note sounds squeezed and this spoils any sense of line. His approach to the part is more successful in Act 2 when Acis is required to sound more martial. In fact, the whole recording is more successful in Act 2 where the necessary dramatics disguise the lack of style which is prevalent in Act 1.

Polyphemus is, to some extent, a pantomime villain but he must appear to be in love and Handel gives him a fine opening aria, ‘O ruddier than the Cherry’. Kevin Deas sings it in a heavily staccato manner which makes it sound heavy and laboured. There is no sense of lightness and shape, not helped by Deas’ singing being constantly too loud.

As Damon, the character who keeps popping up with sensible advice, David Price gives hints of unsteadiness and seems a little uncomfortable with the high tessitura. All the notes are there but the arias fatally lack a feeling for shape and style.

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. William Christie’s version may not be to everyone’s taste but it is a polished and strongly characterized performance, finely recorded, and is certainly the first I would urge anyone to try. For a budget recording, it is worthwhile looking at Naxos. Here the Scholars Baroque Ensemble recorded the 1718 version with genuine chamber forces. The performance is marred mainly by a misguided decision to transpose Polyhemus from tenor to alto.

Robert Hugill

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