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A Royal Trio
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
La Nuova Musica/David Bates.
rec. St. John’s Smith Square, London, 2014.
Texts and Translations provided.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807590 SACD [78:05]

I always approach CDs of operatic arias sung by one singer with some slight trepidation and unease, much like the unease I feel when I meet collectors who arrange their CDs by conductor/ performer rather than composer. Both enterprises run the danger of giving the impression that, say, Beecham matters more than Mozart, Pavarotti more than Verdi, that the interpreter is primary and the music interpreted somehow secondary.
 
Operatic recitals of this kind can suffer from musical incoherence, the repertoire sometimes being so miscellaneous that the only unifying factor is the soloist. Sometimes — perhaps because of this diversity of material — the soloist ‘homogenises’ the chosen arias, so that important distinctions and differences are lost in the insistent presence of the performer’s voice and his/her characteristics/mannerisms. My unease sometimes turns out to be happily unjustified. As it was in this case – I am happy to find Lawrence Zazzo’s splendid disc not guilty on all such counts.
 
There could hardly be a greater degree of musical coherence here. The Disc’ title ‘A Royal Trio’ might, at first glance, be taken simply to assert that the three composers featured were amongst the musical ‘royalty’ of their day — the French booklet notes translate the title as Un trio de rois. So they were, even the least known of the three, Attilio Ariosti. While his name may never quite have had the lustre of those of Bononcini and, especially, Handel, the Bologna-born Ariosti had a Europe-wide reputation in his own day, his music being admired, at one time or another in Berlin, Vienna and London, as well as in native Italy. Born into an illegitimate branch of a noble family, Ariosti took holy orders and later also became a minister and diplomatic agent of the Hapsburgs. Also a poet and librettist, Arosti was clearly a man of many talents. By 1716 Ariosti was in London and a few years later was writing operas for the newly founded Royal Academy of Music, as were Handel and Bononcini. Hence the very precise meaning of ‘A Royal Trio’ refers to three composers who wrote for the same ‘Royal’ opera company. All the music on the disc belongs to the years between 1723 and 1729. So, no musical incoherence here, no random variety.
 
Zazzo is a counter-tenor of justifiably growing reputation and what is immediately striking here - even beyond the consistent beauty and expressiveness of his voice – is the sureness of touch (and, indeed, the speed and intelligence) with which he gives individuality to the character and situation out of which aria grows. These are the performances of a singer who chooses to put the interpretation of the music ahead of the display of his own virtuosity.
 
I suppose that if, on the evidence of just this disc, one was asked to nominate a ‘king’ of this ‘royal trio’ one’s vote would — perhaps unsurprisingly — go to Handel. It is important to stress that Handel does not, in any absolute sense, belong in a different musical league to his two colleagues in this recital. There is much in the work of both Ariosti and Bononcini which might readily be mistaken for Handel and, in some of these cases at least, Handel would not, I suspect, have been unhappy at, or insulted by, such a misattribution. The overture to Ariosti’s Vespasiano, which opens the disc, is a case in point. It is an assured and impressive piece. When I played it to two pretty knowledgeable friends, both guessed that it was by Handel. Ariosti’s ‘Fremi l’onda’ is a lively example of that frequent trope of Baroque opera, the evocation of a storm-at- sea which metaphorically represents a character’s state of mind and heart. Here, one might note, is one instance on the CD where the performance might actually have benefited from a little more vocal and musical characterisation, a greater sense of drama. There is no lack of drama, however, in the two extracts from Ariosti’s Coriolano; a recitative and aria for the imprisoned Coriolanus full of impassioned and noble music of defiance in the face of loss and torment, which get fittingly powerful performances.
 
To realise just how good Bonocini can be, the listener might first try the lamentatory aria ‘Cosė stanco Pellegrino’ from Act III of Crispo, which has an affecting simplicity, the vocal line (beautifully sung) enhanced by a solo cello - Bononcini’s own original instrument – movingly played by, I guess, Jonathan Rees. Very different, but almost as good, is ‘Torrente che scende’ (also from Crispo, Act II this time), an altogether more declamatory and overtly passionate aria which showcases, alongside Zazzo, the horns of La Nuova Musica. Nor are the third and fourth pieces by Bononcini, ‘‘Per la gloria d'adorarvi’ (from Griselda) and ‘Tigre piagata’ (from Muzio Scevola) any kind of disappointment. There has been a growing interest in Bononcini’s work in recent years and these four pieces alone would be enough to make it clear why that should have been so.
 
Lawrence Zazzo and David Bates have represented Handel by music that is not over-familiar — if his music ever can be exhausted by familiarity – I at least never tire of it. Particular highlights include Guido’s ‘Rompo i laci’ from Flavio, full of swaggering energy at first and developing plaintively with some ravishing vocal colours, and Caesar’s ‘Va tacito’ in which the horn of, I presume, Alec Frank-Gemmill shares the limelight with some impressive work by Zazzo. In truth, each time I listen to the disc I find myself choosing different highlights by each of these three ‘rois’. To add one note of slight reservation, I sometimes miss a weight in the bottom register of Zazzo’s voice, fine and beautiful at its top end. This ‘lack’ is evident, for example, in some passages of ‘Vivi, Tiranno’ which closes the recital. It would be wrong for me to end on a negative note. This is a CD I have enjoyed immensely and which I shall, I am sure, continue to play regularly. It will appeal strongly to all lovers of baroque opera and to lovers of Handel who are willing to sample the musical context in which his work was created.
 
Glyn Pursglove
 
Track listing
Attilio ARIOSTI (1666 - 1729)
Overture (from Vespasiano, 1724) [5:12]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
‘Rompo i lacci’ (from Flavio, 1723) [5:51]
Giovanni BONONCINI (1670 - 1747)
‘Cosi stanco Pellegrino’ (from Crispo, 1723) [5:51]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Sinfonia (from Act I of Admeto, 1727) [1:29]
‘Va tacito’ (from Giulio Cesare, 1724) [7:01]
‘Io son tradito’ (from Ottone 1723) [1:44]
‘Tanti affani’ (from Ottone 1723)
Giovanni BONONCINI (1670 - 1747)
‘Per la gloria d'adorarvi’ (from Griselda, 1722) [3:38]
Attilio ARIOSTI (1666 - 1729)
‘Frema l'onda’ from Il naufragio vicino, 1724) [3:49]
‘Spiritate, o iniqui marmi’ from Coriolano, 1723) [3:12]
‘Chiudetevi miei lumi’ (from Coriolano, 1723) [7:37]
Giovanni BONONCINI (1670 - 1747)
‘Torrente che scende’ (from Crispo, 1723) [4:11]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Introduzione (Ballo di Larve) (from Admeto, 1727) [1:58]
‘Orride larve’ from Admeto, 1727) [3:12]
Giovanni BONONCINI (1670 - 1747)
‘Tigre piagata’ (from Muzio Scevola, 1721) [3:10]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Sinfonia (from Act I of Admeto, 1727) [1:21]
‘Vivi, tiranno’ (from Rodelinda, 1725) [5:52]