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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Scenes from Acis and Galatea - a masque in two acts HWV49 (c.1718)
Galatea – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Acis – Peter Pears (tenor)
Damon – David Galliver (tenor)
Polyphemus  - Owen Brannigan (bass)
Thurston Dart (harpsichord continuo)
St Anthony Singers
Philomusica of London/Adrian Boult
rec. Watford Town Hall, June 1959
CHANDOS CHAN3147 [79:23]


First impressions: the box has a “distressed” look, its edges mottled, worn looking and yellowing, and so too the booklet with notes and English text, untranslated. The recording has been subjected to that process known as 24-bit/96 kHz digital remastering. And the whole shebang comes complete on one disc lasting just under eighty minutes. The 1959 recording was presided over by Adrian Boult and he had Thurston Dart as a harpsichord continuo player. I wish I knew who was the cello continuo from amongst the ranks of the Philomusica of London.

The cast boasts three outstanding performances and one singer’s name is printed in bigger type than any other musicians and that singer is Joan Sutherland, the Galatea. Her Acis is Peter Pears and the Polyphemus is stentorian Owen Brannigan. David Galliver is Damon.

At the helm then is Boult, who leads an intelligent, poised performance. His rhythms are pretty well sprung for the time though the recitatives are slow, indeed sometimes too inert for their own good. One feature that can’t escape note is the guillotining of a large number of da capo sections; this is unfortunate and unbalances arias especially with regard to the ritornello but it’s an unavoidable feature of the recording. Another is the excision of the small role of Coridon. The orchestra is clearly composed of some top-flight London professionals and they respond with alacrity to Boult’s direction. They’re especially good in the instrumental rusticities underpinning Galatea’s Hush, ye pretty warbling quire! The chorus however, the St Anthony Singers, are in unsettled voice; they’re rather woolly around the edges and make up in commitment what they lack in precision.

For most listeners however the core of the matter lies in the singing. At the summit stands Sutherland. Her trills in the aria just mentioned are magnificent and her elegance and razor sharp articulation ensure the smoothest of aural rides, with no bumps or vocal stalling. Hers is not necessarily the creamiest voice to have essayed the role, nor does she sound quite the maiden, but her As when the dove is lovely irrespective of voice type. Maybe her recitative ‘Tis done! Thus I exert my power divine is a touch too imperious but its command is undeniable. She matches Pears very rewardingly in their Act I duet Happy we, where sufficient care has been taken to ensure ensemble vitality. Now Pears is also not the first voice to come to mind in this role. Of his English antecedents Heddle Nash is the name that springs to mind, whose recordings of arias from the work were – and are – so captivating. Pears proves as notable a phraser of Handel’s melodic lines as his eminent predecessor. Love in her eyes sits playing is spun with delightful lyricism and ardour, breaths taken appositely, the line unbroken, registral complications all well surmounted. It’s really only the tightness of the voice that can limit unalloyed pleasure.  He certainly has the clarion edge for Love sounds th’alarm.

Owen Brannigan was a much-admired bass and he proves a worthy successor to such heavyweights as Peter Dawson and Malcolm McEarchen. He has the voice, the personality and the power of projection. His gifts of characterisation are to the fore here, but never over done. The divisions of O ruddier than the cherry are full of brio and in-character bluster.

The least well known of the quartet is the Damon of David Galliver. He has an attractive tenor voice, and from time to time sounds not unlike Heddle Nash, especially in the upper register of the voice – try Act I’s recitative Stay, shepherd, stay! Occasionally the line veers a little toward unsteadiness but it’s not a material problem.

The many more recent recordings of course, Gardiner’s prominently, address technical and stylistic matters rather more appropriately. But this Golden Age Acis is a splendid example of technical and lyric superiority in action.

Jonathan Woolf




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