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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Triumph of Time and Truth HWV71
Sophie Bevan (soprano) – Beauty; Mary Bevan (soprano) – Deceit; Tim Mead (counter-tenor) - Counsel/Truth; Ed Lyon (tenor) – Pleasure; William Berger (bass) – Time
Ludus Baroque/Richard Neville-Towle
rec. 4-7 August, 2013, Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh. DDD
English text included
DELPHIAN DCD34135 [78:28 + 76:15]

Just recently the Edinburgh-based Delphian label was named Label of the Year at the 2014 Gramophone awards. That’s quite an accolade for a small independent label that was only established as recently as 2000. It was founded by two graduates of Edinburgh University, Kevin Findlan and Paul Baxter. I’m not sure if Kevin Findlan remains with the business but Paul Baxter is most certainly still there; indeed, he has produced and engineered almost all of the albums – some 150 of them – issued by Delphian to date. Over the years MusicWeb International has reviewed quite a lot of their discs (click here to see a list) and several have come my way. It seems to me that the label pursues a fairly simple yet focussed strategy, recording music that needs recording – often because the work or composer is under-represented in the catalogue; using a roster of artists who will deliver high-quality performances; and issuing recordings distinguished by excellent sound and equally good documentation. If I’ve interpreted the strategy correctly then it seems highly effective and this latest release by Ludus Baroque exemplifies it.
 
Following their very fine recording of the Song for St Cecilia’s Day (review), which was made in August 2011, Richard Neville-Towle and his team, including two of the same soloists – Mary Bevan and Ed Lyon – returned to the same Edinburgh venue, the Canongate Kirk, to record Handel’s last oratorio.
 
It could be said that The Triumph of Time and Truth neatly bookends Handel’s career as an oratorio composer for much of the material in it derives from his very first oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV46a. He composed this in Rome in 1707 to a libretto by his patron, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. This work was revised in 1737 (HWV 46b). Fifty years after the original composition Handel returned to his Roman score and this time set the libretto in a new free, versified English translation by Rev. Thomas Morell, bringing in various numbers from some of his other works. The result is a substantial three-act allegorical oratorio.
 
The ‘plot’, such as it is, revolves around the attempts of Pleasure and Deceit to turn the young, impressionable character, Beauty, away from the path of virtue. Beauty certainly wobbles along the way but in the end heeds the advice of Counsel and Time, resists the blandishments of Deceit and Pleasure and stays on the ‘right side’. The chorus comments from time to time as events unfold. One pleasing detail of this particular recording is that we hear the Sophie and Mary Bevan, sisters I believe, pitted against one another as Mary (Deceit) tries to convince Sophie (Beauty) to go astray.
 
The score contains some Handelian gems. Act II has two choice airs for Counsel, ‘Mortals think that Time is sleeping’ and ‘On the valleys’. The former, a gorgeous creation, has a pair of recorders gently cooing in the background. Tim Mead makes a splendid job of both arias and I love the tasteful way in which he decorates the da capo sections to fine expressive effect. Handel saves the best till last – or nearly last; the penultimate number in the whole work is a ravishing air for Beauty, ‘Guardian angels’. This, with its lovely oboe part, is absolutely top-drawer Handel and it’s superbly sung by Sophie Bevan.
 
Sophie Bevan impresses greatly with her overall performance. Indeed, the name of her character, Beauty, is very appropriate since the sound of her voice is consistently beautiful. The tone is rich, full and alluring and her diction is very clear – which can’t always be said of sopranos. The part is perhaps a bit more high-lying than the part of Deceit, which her sister takes, and I think the roles have been intelligently allotted to match the intrinsic characters of the respective voices.
 
Mary Bevan’s voice seems a little smaller than Sophie’s – that’s a statement, not an implied criticism – or at least that’s how it appears to me in this recording. Mary’s voice may not have quite the same lustre but she still gives great pleasure as, for instance, in the gently lilting air ‘Pleasure’s gentle Zephyr’s playing’ in Act II. Later, in Act III she demonstrates two aspects of Deceit’s approach to temptation, firstly in the air ‘Charming Beauty’. This is beguiling music and Miss Bevan’s delivery of it is equally beguiling – she decorates the da capo deliciously. When that approach fails to tempt Beauty she tries a more direct approach in ‘Sharp thorns despising’. That calls for greater vocal agility as well as more forceful singing and Mary Bevan rises to this different challenge very well too.
 
I’ve already mentioned Tim Mead, who makes a fine all-round contribution to the performance. I’m not entirely sure that all of Pleasure’s music is equally well suited to Ed Lyon’s voice, well though he sings. On his first appearance in the Act I air ‘Pensive sorrow’ I liked his clear ringing tenor: you could imagine Pleasure as someone who’d turn a girl’s head. The air that follows immediately is billed in the booklet as being for Beauty but in fact it’s Lyon who sings it and the piece gives him a chance to show a different side of his voice; the music is slow and lyrical and he does it well. Later, however, in the Act II air ‘Lovely Beauty, close those eyes’ his style seems rather too forthright. This is music that needs a more liquid, sweet-toned style – I immediately thought of Anthony Rolfe Johnson – and Lyon doesn’t really seem equipped for that. However, he’s just the right singer for Pleasure’s last hurrah, after he’s been bested in the tussle for Beauty’s soul: ‘Like clouds, stormy winds them impelling’ is as turbulent as the title suggests and Lyon offers a suitably dramatic, defiant rendition, the divisions expertly negotiated.
 
As Time we have William Berger who impressed me some time ago in a thoughtfully-planned recital disc (review). Here, in very different music, he also makes a favourable impression. In the Act I air ‘Loathsome urns’ we hear focused singing, a firm, rounded tone and a suitably expressive approach. Just as good is the Act III air, ‘From the heart that feels my warning’ in which I admired the warmth of the voice and the excellent sense of line.
 
So, we have a strong solo team: what about the chorus? The choir comprises 19 voices (5/5/4/5) with a mix of male and female altos, which I always like in music of this period. In their very first chorus, ‘Time is supreme’, they make a very strong first impression. The attack is strong, vividly demonstrating an appetite for the music, and with a small group like this you get excellent clarity. Incidentally, this opening chorus is enlivened by spirited solo passages for the counter tenor accompanied by a shining trumpet. Later on in Act I there’s a good blend in the chordal opening to ‘Strengthen us, O Time’ and when Handel then lets rip with a fugue the singers present it with excellent clarity. I don’t know how many choruses were added to the 1707 original score; one that is mentioned in the notes is the Act III chorus, ‘Comfort them, O Lord’ which Handel recycled from his 1749 Foundling Hospital Anthem, HWV268. The choir sings this extremely well. Another success is the chorus near the beginning of Act II, ‘Oh, how great the glory’. This is splendidly energetic stuff, excitingly performed. Handel seizes on a reference to hunters in the text to introduce a pair of corni da caccia into the accompaniment and their exuberant contribution adds to the fun here. To the choir falls the duty of closing the work in a short but resplendent Hallelujah chorus – yes, Handel wrote more than one. This is exultant music and the invigorating rendition by the choir – and the orchestra – sets the seal on the whole performance.
 
The orchestra of 21 players excels. They lay out their credentials impressively in the overture with lean but polished playing. The rhythms are crisp and the sound of the instruments tickles the ear, not least the nimble oboes and mellow bassoons. You sense in these first four minutes that the performance that follows is likely to be good and these expectations are met in full. Throughout the whole oratorio the instrumental playing is stylish and vital and I enjoyed it very much.
 
Richard Neville-Towle’s direction is assured and evidences great sympathy for and commitment to the music. He invests the quick music with vitality but is also ready to make the most of Handel’s slower, sensuous opportunities. The recitatives are crisp and stylish. Overall one has the impression that a skilled and seasoned Handelian is at the helm.
 
Once again engineer Paul Baxter has presented a performance in excellent, clear sound with just the right degree of ambience. The documentation is excellent, something I have come to take for granted from this label.
 
As I indicated at the start, my experience to date of Delphian releases suggests that this new issue typifies the label’s virtues. It’s a fine and enjoyable recording which lovers of Handel oratorios should ensure they hear.
 
John Quinn
 
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson and Geoffrey Molyneux