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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Handel’s Finest Arias for Base Voice
see end of review for track listing
Christopher Purves (bass)
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
rec. January 2012, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Texts and translations included
HYPERION CDA67842 [70:54]

Experience Classicsonline

Handel vocal recital discs have been dominated of late by music for sopranos, mezzos and counter-tenors, and often as not duets for combinations thereof. They have invariably struck a glamorous pose. The cover art of the booklet for this disc, in contrast, depicts Peter Paul Rubens’ c.1609 Samson and Delilah. Christopher Purves, soberly dressed, in black and white, is represented only by a small photograph on page twelve. The recital is not an obvious star vehicle: no charismatic and photogenic poses are struck. Instead, these ‘base arias’ - the spelling is intended - reveal Purves are something far more important than a purveyor of coloratura and flighty roulades. He takes some of Handel’s gravest and most dignified music, from oratorios and operas principally, and adds to it some of his most technically demanding, to present a disc of great authority and consummate musical intelligence.
I have seen Purves on the concert platform several times and he has a strong physical presence. Sometimes singers with this quality don’t manage to communicate it in the studio environment. Purves, however, invariably seems to do so. It helps that the programme has been cannily selected to reveal not only the dramatic potential of the music but its variety as well: the bass as buffo or as loving father, as schemer or as reflective loner.
Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto from Rinaldo reveals another thing too, which is the consistent excellence of Jonathan Cohen’s direction and the group Arcangelo’s very personable and individualistic instrumental contributions. I also like all the tempo decisions. This particular aria is taken just a shade slower than Christopher Hogwood’s tempo in the complete Decca set of Rinaldo where Gerald Finley, a baritone, took the role of Argante. The result is that Purves avoids the somewhat militant and hectoring quality that Finley, albeit attractively, brought to the role. Recitatives and accompanied passages give Purves full opportunity to display his rich grasp of characterization. Peter Dawson was an altogether more avuncular Polyphemus, whose O ruddier than the cherry could have been sung at the bar, pint mug in hand. Altogether more menacing, Purves is not a giant with whom to trifle. The piping recorder accompanying him offers an ironic commentary on his libidinous bluster.
The earlier Italian version of Acis was Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and in the aria Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori we hear a truly remarkable piece of singing, as Purves negotiates a two-and-a-half octave descent, with cruel intervals, managing to sustain body of tone throughout, not least at the very bottom. Once again the recorder dallies up above. Yet for every aria such as this, he presents one like Tears, such as tender fathers shed from Deborah, a brief but concentrated example of negotiated nobility, reserving of tone and conveyance of stillness and sublimated emotion. Stoicism, in a word. As Zoroastro in Orlando he suggests menace in Sorge infausta una procella. He relishes verbal dexterity, and the sound of his rolling consonants in Racks, gibbets, sword and fire from Theodora is not easily forgotten, He shakes the word ‘racks’ around his mouth like a dog savaging a toy doll.
We should once again commend the accompanying players, who in Mie piante correte provide bassoon and string textures fully worthy of the sublime music; commend, too, Purves’ almost Sencan raptness, a true melancholy stillness, in Cara pianta. The vitality and confidence of that old favouriteRevenge, Timotheus cries should be acknowledged, along with its unusually slow B section. And a gentle envoi is offered in Leave me, loathsome light from Semele which put me in mind of the more emotional performance given a long time ago on LP by Forbes Robinson, who did a clever thing by insinuating a da capo.
This outstandingly good disc offers a wide range of music, feeling, texture and mood. Singer and accompanying group are perfectly matched in a sympathetic church acoustic. Let’s hope Purves can be induced to commit more of his Handelian repertoire to disc without too much delay.
Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto from Rinaldo HWV7a (1711) [4:50]
I rage, I melt, I burn! Accompagnato [1:21] - O ruddier than the cherry from Acis and Galatea HWV49a (1718) [3:13]
Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo HWV72 (1708) [6:59]
If I give thee honour due [0:12] - Mirth, admit me of thy crew Air from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato HWV55 (1740) [2:34]
Qual’insolita luce [1:09] - Caddi, è ver Aria from La Resurrezione HWV47 (1708) [4:15]
Tears, such as tender fathers shed from Deborah HWV51 (1733) [2:30]
To pow’r immortal my first thanks are due from Belshazzar HWV61 (rev..1751) [3:55]
Impari ognun da Orlando [1:11] - Sorge infausta una procella from Orlando HWV31 (1733) [4:35]
Racks, gibbets, sword and fire from Theodora HWV68 (1750) [3:56]
Volate più dei venti from Muzio Scevola HWV13 (1721) [3:24]
Vieni, o cara from Agrippina HWV6 (1709) [1:45]
Nel mondo e nell’abisso from Riccardo Primo, Re d’Inghilterra HWV23 (1727) [3:13]
Mie piante correte [2:50] - Cara pianta from Apollo e Dafne HWV122 (1710) [7:27]
Revenge, Timotheus cries from Alexander’s Feast HWV75 (1736) [7:55]
Leave me, loathsome light from Semele HWV58 (1744) [3:40]

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