The Handel anniversary year gives record companies an excuse to
recycle material from their back catalogues to tempt new customers.
This 2-CD set is however a little different insofar as most tracks
are still quite fresh, recorded during the last decade and the
late 1990s. Moreover many of the titles are directly culled from
a similar set, issued in 2004 and entitled ‘Heavenly Handel’.
It seems still to be available.
of this kind are primarily aimed at the general record-buying
public and not specialist collectors. This one is as good an
introduction to Handel and baroque opera in general as any.
It also presents the music in historically authentic readings
with specially trained singers and in many cases orchestras
playing period instruments at baroque pitch. Even the oldest
recordings, the excerpts from the thirty-year-old Admeto,
are performed by baroque pioneers. The sound quality inevitably
varies but the general level is high. Artistically and musically
there isn’t one number that feels out of phase with the programme
at large. Readers unfamiliar with period performances can rest
assured that what is presented here fulfils all the requirements.
The only thing one could have wished for was an informative
and pedagogical essay placing the various items in their context
and giving a brief outline of their function. What we get is
a short biography on Handel, printed in pale yellow with brown
background – one of the combinations least suitable for people
with reduced eye-sight. Even the track-list has the same design.
There is no discernable
logic in the ordering of the numbers, no chronology or thematic
grouping, but it is good that the compilers have looked a bit
further than the most obvious ‘hits’ and included also some
music from non-operatic works.
The brightest shining
star, and also the one most lavishly represented, is the superb
counter-tenor David Daniels, who has claims to be the most complete
representative of this vocal pitch: beautiful, expressive, technically
accomplished and with a tone and style that should be accepted
even by the most inveterate opponents of falsetto singing. He
opens the first disc with two of the most famous Handel arias:
a beautiful and expressive Ombra mai fu and an inward
Dove sei from Rodelinda. It is lighter and more
flexible than Kathleen Ferrier’s Decca recording in English,
which was my first version of this evergreen. The versatile
Véronique Gens is bright and clear and has warmth in the Armida
excerpt. Philippe Jaroussky with a smaller and brighter
voice than Daniels, sings the long aria from Ariodante
and does so with melting beauty.
René Jacobs, today
one of the foremost conductors in the baroque – and also Mozart
– repertoire, is elegant in an aria from Admeto - one
of the best things on this set. Contralto Stephanie Blythe was
a revelation when I heard her in Verdi’s Requiem at the
Royal Festival Hall almost a decade ago. Soon afterwards I bought
her debut recital with arias by Bach and Handel. Where shall
I fly? from Hercules is from that recital - it is
emotional as well as dramatic with some fearsome runs. She hasn’t,
unfortunately, been a very frequent visitor to the recording
studios, which French counter-tenor Gérard Lesne has. His technical
ability is stunning, which he demonstrates in the embellishments
in the last section of the cantata Splenda l’alba in oriente.
What he lacks in power and brilliance is more than compensated
for by his elegance. Natalie Dessay, another fantastic French
singer, is superb in the aria from Il Trionfo del Tempo e
del Disinganno, that concludes the first disc.
There is just as
much high quality singing on the second disc, where some of
the highlights are Della Jones’s Verdi prati from Alcina,
Arleen Augér’s Ombre pallide from the same opera and
David Daniel in two arias from Giulio Cesare.
There are also some
duets sprinkled in to achieve the greatest possible variation.
Here Sandrine Piau’s bright tones contrast effectively against
Sara Mingardo’s dark alto in Sorge il di from Aci,
Galatea e Polifemo. Lynne Dawson more or less overshadows
Ian Bostridge in their duet from L’Allegro, il Penseroso
ed il Moderato. On CD 2 Sandrine Piau and Gloria Banditelli
are splendid in the duet from Rodrigo but here the compilers
– or the editors of the booklet – must have nodded. The duet
opens with a short recitative Dolcissima Esilena (CD
2 tr. 6) and then the duet proper Prendi l’alma e prendi
il core has a separate track (7). In the track-list the
duet is listed as track 6, which means that all the following
tracks are one step behind. I have provided the correct list
in the header of this review.
Even though I have
a fairly large collection of Handel arias this set makes a fine
addition and in many cases the readings included here must be
ranked among the very best. It is still a pity that there isn’t
more information on the music but for pure listening to some
really great voices in a number of the finest baroque arias
this set is more than worth its modest price. It retails at