I can’t recall previously encountering either of the two Canadian
singers on this CD but they make a very favourable impression.
In addition, whoever has been responsible for choosing the programme
has done so with a discerning ear for there’s some ravishing music
here and it’s also good to encounter a number of less familiar
items from some of Handel’s less frequently heard oratorios, such
as Alexander Balus
and Joseph and his Brethren.
I am slightly perplexed by some of the ordering of the items on
this disc: there are several instances where items from the same
oratorio stand in splendid isolation within the programme, where
grouping might have been preferable. It will be noted, for example,
that the items from Theodora
are dotted about rather haphazardly.
In one sense I can understand this because Marie-Nicole Lemieux
assumes two different characters: Didymus and Irene. However,
the ordering of the numbers means that we switch about from one
act to another, seemingly at random. It might have been more sensible
to programme the pieces from this oratorio as a single group.
More bafflingly, the opening track and the very last one are both
and in the complete work they follow each
other – indeed, in the booklet essay it says quite clearly that
one “leads directly” into the other. Breaking them up, therefore,
seems to make little sense. It’s a pity that when so much else
about this disc is so good, that a bit more care hasn’t been taken
over this one aspect of presentation.
But enough of reservations, for there’s much here not just to
enjoy and also to celebrate. Both these two singers have beautiful,
sensuous voices. If you insist on hearing baroque music sung sans
vibrato then read no further. But if you delight in lovely tone,
evenly produced and in communicative, vivid singing that conveys
an evident love of the music in question then this disc is for
you. Each of these singers knows how to use vibrato and vocal
colour and they do so most delightfully. Miss Lemieux is a genuine
contralto and her tone is rich and full. Hers is quite a big voice
but it’s certainly not an inflexible instrument and she is more
than capable of negotiating fast, florid passagework with aplomb
– and with clarity. Sample, for example, ‘Destructive war’; there’s
no want of agility here. I ought to say that this aria affords
one of a few examples during the programme where both singers
betray in their vowel sounds that they are not Anglophones. So,
here we get “destroctive” war. However, though these instances
are noticeable they are not excessive; one soon adjusts and pleasure
in the overall quality of the singing is not compromised.
There are some beguiling solos from each singer, to which we’ll
come in a minute, but the duets are especially remarkable, for
in every duet we can revel in hearing two well-matched, sensuous
and expressive voices together. An early example in the programme
is ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth’. Even more noteworthy
is the gorgeous duet from Solomon,
‘Welcome as the dawn
of day’ where the full, expressive sound of each singer is completely
apt for this seductive music.
Besides combining beautifully in duet each singer has several
solos and all these are ideally suited to their respective voices.
Karina Gauvin is deeply expressive in the opening section of ‘Can
I see my infant gor’d’ and then, at the words “Take him all” she
becomes movingly resolute. This is a convincing and touching performance
of the aria. Just as fine is her rendition of ‘Forgive me – My
father’. She conveys the tragic vein of the first part of the
aria splendidly but then she’s even more compelling in the calm
acceptance of the second half – “Peaceful rest, dear parent shade”.
I noted that both this and another of her solos, ‘Prophetic raptures
swell my breast’, were composed for the soprano who created the
role of Semele and one suspects that this, too, would be a role
that would suit Miss Gavin well.
Not to be outdone, Marie-Nicole Lemieux excels in ‘Fury with red
sparkling eyes’, an aria that finds her in fiery form. That’s
suitable for the warrior side of the character of Alexander Balus.
However, Handel also shows Balus as a lover in ‘Fair virtue shall
charm me’ and here Miss Lemieux offers warm, voluptuous tone that’s
entirely suitable for this music.
In that aria we are treated also to some lovely oboe playing and
this is as good a moment as any to say that the accompaniment
provided by Il Complesso Barocco is exemplary throughout the recital.
The playing is stylish and, where called for, very spirited, as
in ‘Fury with red sparkling eyes’. Alan Curtis is a noted and
extremely experienced Handelian so it should not be surprising,
perhaps, that everything on this disc is done so very well.
The title of this recital, taken from one of the items from Theodora
is entirely apposite. I derived nothing but pleasure from listening
to this disc. The music is all taken from English oratorios composed
by Handel between 1744 and 1750 so we are offered a succession
of numbers from the high noon of Handel’s career. Every single
item is superbly delivered by these two fine singers, brilliantly
supported by Alan Curtis and his responsive band. This is one
of the finest Handel recitals to have come my way in a long time
and it’s a delight from start to finish.