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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Complete ‘Amen, Alleluia’ Arias
Robert Crowe (soprano)
Il Furioso (Victor Coelho (theorbo); David Dolata (theorbo); Juvenal Correa-Salas (organ))
rec. 2016, Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center Concert Hall, Florida International University, Miami

Amongst the most obscure areas of Handel’s vast output are the nine settings of two single words “Amen, Alleluia”. This is apparently the first time they have been recorded, and they receive performances which are as strange as the provenance of the works themselves. The extensive and learned notes by the performers on this disc compare them with the practice of wordless vocal exercises known as solfeggi, which composers such as Leo, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Hasse compiled for singers. Mozart also later wrote a set (K393), one of which found its way into the C minor Mass as the soprano solo on ‘Christe eleison’. The argument that Handel’s essays are such compositions is dismissed, however, on the basis that they are no mere dry, pedagogic exercises examining certain aspects of vocal technique in the manner of an etude. Instead it is hypothesised that, if these settings of two simple words were disproportionately elaborate to constitute the conclusion to standard church anthems of the period for public worship, they could nevertheless have been intended for private devotion. It is for that reason that they are interspersed with items from other settings of religious songs and devotional texts around the turn of the 18th century. But in truth nobody really knows why Handel wrote them, and seemingly over a period of time at that, from around 1728 to the middle 1740s, though surely it is telling that this roughly coincides with his growing interest in Anglican church music as he came to develop his unique form of English oratorio. Less grand and florid than the arias of his Italian operas, they perhaps bear some musical similarity with his more modest set of Nine German Arias, HWV 202-210.

It is curious then that, if they are devotional works, and given their usual association with the soprano voice, they are given here in a theatrical, almost lurid fashion by a male soprano. Robert Crowe is unafraid to swoop between notes, juxtaposing entirely different colours and registers of tone from one phrase to the next, turning in rather mannered interpretations of a good number of passages, and availing himself on occasions of what sounds like a musical laugh. The ornamented version of HWV270 given at the end of the disc sounds like a series of shrieks and ululations, as though from an aviary of ecstatic birds. Those who saw the film Farinelli il Castrato will have heard the attempt to recreate the sound of the castrato voice by the superimposition of Derek Lee Ragin’s voice over Ewa Malas-Godlewska’s, and Robert Crowe’s performances are similar in timbre, but the effects diverge widely from any virtuosic techniques cultivated for that film’s soundtrack.

When Crowe adopts a more steady and reserved approach, as at the opening of HWV272 the effect is haunting, but on other occasions the wobble applied to notes – wider than any ordinarily acceptable vibrato – is disconcerting. His technique is undoubtedly remarkable and one cannot fault the control he asserts over the apparently wild effects of the music at times, but it is questionable whether such a theatrical approach is suitable for the quiet, intimate devotion of the repertoire to which it is applied. His interpretations of Croft’s A Hymn on Divine Musick and the anonymous A Divine Song on the Passion of our Saviour are more measured – at least until the shrieking, held high note at the climax of the former – and the rhythmical observation of the setting of “trickling down” in the latter is astute, but it is in Church’s A Divine Hymn that Crowe achieves a consistently wrought intensity which makes this performance more compelling than any of his other efforts on this disc.

What, in other contexts, would be the sprightly and zesty accompaniments of Victor Coelho and David Dolata on the theorbos, and Juvenal Corre-Salas on organ here sound also too sober and restrained in comparison with the voice. Left to themselves they are a model of restraint and elegance in the extracts from three purely instrumental sonatas by Pittoni, as well as the lengthy introduction to Handel’s setting HWV275. Handelians will naturally wish to explore these unusual and rewarding compositions, but these interpretations will give them a surprise.

Curtis Rogers

Amen in F major, HWV270 [1:42]
Giovanni PITTONI (c1635-1677)
Sonata Nona in D minor - Andante (1669) [2:02]
William CROFT (1678-1727)
A Hymn on Divine Music (1700) [5:01]
George Frideric HANDEL
Amen, Alleluia in G major, HWV273 [1:06]
Amen in G minor, HWV271 [3:44]
Amen, Alleluia in A minor, HWV274 [1:59]
Giovanni PITTONI
Sonata Decima in G major (1669) [4:28]
George Frideric HANDEL
Amen, Alleluia in F major, HWV276 [1:11]
A Divine Song on the Passion of our Saviour (1693) [6:24]
Giovanni PITTONI
Sonata Nona in D minor – Andante (1669) [1:29]
George Frideric HANDEL
Alleluia, Amen in F major, HWV277 [2:57]
Three pieces from the Braamcamp Handel-Clay Clock (c1738) [4:13]
John CHURCH (1674-1741)
A Divine Hymn (1703) [7:28]
George Frideric HANDEL
Amen, Alleluia in D minor, HWV272 [2:36]
Giovanni PITTONI
Sonata Undecima in A minor – Andante [1:59]
George Frideric HANDEL
Amen, Alleluia in C major, HWV275 [1:49]
Amen in F major, HWV270 (ornamented version) [1:49]



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