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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Great Handel

Where e’er you walk (Semele) [4.51]
Comfort Ye; Ev’ry Valley (Messiah) [6.22]
Frondi tenere; Ombra mai fu (Serse) [3.16]
Cosi la tortorella (La Resurrezione) [3.46]
Love sounds th’alarm; Love in her eyes sits playing; Happy we (Acis and Galatea) [13.46]
Scherza infida; Dopo notte (Ariodante) [16.54]
Total eclipse (Samson) [3.37]
As steals the morn (L’Allegro) [5.35]
Hide thou thy hated beams; A father off’ring up his only child; Waft her, angels (Jephtha) [7.36]
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Kate Royal (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Harry Bicket
rec. 2-5 October 2006, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 3822432 [65.54]


Experience Classicsonline

John Beard, the tenor who created the roles of Jupiter (in Semele), Samson, Judas (in Judas Maccabeus) and Jephtha in Handel’s oratorios, had a voice whose compass seems - according to Winton Dean writing in Grove - to have been B to a’ … though parts written for him rarely go below d.  His strengths seem to have been expressiveness and a firm mezza-voce rather than agility. This agrees with what we know about the other oratorio singers who sang for and were trained by Handel.

The other major tenor associated with Handel comes from his Italian opera period; Francesco Borosini created the roles of Bajazet in Tamerlano and Grimoaldo in Rodelinda. For Handel, his range seems to have been A to a’, but other composers wrote lower parts and even notated for him in the bass clef. His ‘signature’ seem to have been a forceful style of singing with wide leaps and energetic declamation.

I include these two descriptions because in the booklet for his new disc of Handel arias, Ian Bostridge refers to his desire to ‘rehabilitate the Handel tenor’. Simply comparing Borosini and Beard, and the parts written for them, make us realise that there was never a single exemplar of a Handel tenor. Bostridge’s article works a little hard to try and convince us that the Handelian tenor repertoire is under-appreciated and that this new disc is going to rehabilitate the Handelian tenor.

It would have been preferable, I think, if Bostridge had simply issued a recital of Handel arias without any special pleading. Critics would then have assessed it on its own merits, whereas his understandable didactic instinct has caused a degree of critical comment. This is partly because Bostridge has indeed shot himself in the foot.

The only arias he sings from Handel’s Italian operas are transpositions of well known castrato pieces from Serse and Ariodante. In the text Bostridge refers to the fact that Francesco Borosini sang the castrato role of Sesto in a revival of Giulio Cesare. But Handel gave him substantially new music and examples of Handel’s transposing roles down an octave are so infrequent that we must assume that he only did it in rare circumstances.

Bostridge sings nothing that Handel wrote for Borosini. Of his own appropriation of arias from the title roles in Ariodante and Serse he says that there is a great deal of difference between the transposition of a role into the bass register - as has happened a lot in the past (Norman Treigle singing the title role in Giulio Cesare to Beverly Sills’s Cleopatra) - and singing the role in the tenor register. All we can do at this point is to listen to the disc and see whether we agree!

Bostridge sings Ombra mai fu with its preceding accompagnato from Serse and Scherza infida and Dopo notte from Ariodante. In all these he sounds uncomfortable with the tessitura and the lower third of his voice is forced so as to accommodate the unusually low (for Bostridge) part. He tends to compensate by being overly dramatic and interventionist; you feel he wants to keep doing something with the music rather than simply letting it be.

As an example of what Bostridge is truly capable of take his singing of a part in the correct vocal range, as in San Giovanni’s aria, Cosi la tortorella from La Resurrezione. This is lovely and I wish we had more of it on the disc. The part sits well with him and he sounds more relaxed and commensurately tries to do less with the music, to the aria’s great benefit.

The duet As steals the morn from L’Allegro and three items from Acis and Galatea show Bostridge similarly in fine form. They show what he can do with Handel. He remains an interventionist at heart. Though he sings with an elegant line, he has a tendency to shape each note individually, to throb and croon. You must set this against the fact that he sings with superb diction and his usual musical intelligence.

If we turn to the tenor parts written for John Beard then the results are mixed. Bostridge sings the items from Samson and Jephtha with a rather soft-grained tone, crooning the quieter bits. He seems to have taken the Grove Dictionary’s description of Beard’s voice rather too much to heart. I wanted far more edge to the voice in these items. Overall his delivery was too soft-grained for my taste. That this is a deliberate choice is indicated by his way with Ev’ry Valley from Messiah, where he delivers the aria with all the edge, firmness and power I would have liked in the Samson and Jephtha items.

The selection of arias on the disc is, overall, rather unimaginative. Bostridge has included nothing which is in the slightest way unusual or out of the way, simply giving us a sort of 'greatest hits' disc.

Bostridge is well supported by Harry Bickett and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose members contribute some fine solo playing.

In addition to the article by Bostridge the booklet include all the song texts and English translations where necessary.

This is a mixed disc. Bostridge’s admirers will undoubtedly enjoy his performances but other listeners might be less convinced by his rather personal take on Handelian performance. I would like to think that this disc might win new audience for the repertoire, but I am not at all sure. 

Robert Hugill 



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