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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Finest Arias for Base Voice
Christopher Purves (baritone)
Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
rec. 2016/17, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Sung texts enclosed, the Italian texts with English translations
HYPERION CDA68152 [77:11]

My shelves are literally weighted down by Handel recitals, many of them excellent, none really poor, but this one beats them all – even though several of the others are not far behind. This one is special in several ways. Firstly there are very few collections of Handelian bass arias. The only one I know is an almost 30-year-old Harmonia Mundi disc with the excellent David Thomas and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan. It has long been a favourite and will remain so, since there is little overlapping: two arias from Esther and one from Athalia. Secondly the title of the album, Handel’s finest arias for base voice is for once no hype. These are really marvellous arias out of Handel’s top drawer, and they cover so many moods and dramatic situations. But just as important is the actual singing of them. Christopher Purves is an uncommonly versatile artist, at home in most genres and epochs and with a particular affinity for contemporary music. But his discography comprises a lot of Handel, including a previous recital with the same title as the new one. I haven’t heard it, but it was enthusiastically reviewed by Jonathan Woolf five years ago, and he ended the review: “Let’s hope Purves can be induced to commit more of his Handelian repertoire to disc without too much delay.” A five-year delay may seem a little too much, but after finishing my first listening session I could only say: “It was well worth waiting for!”

As in the previous volume Purves intelligently chooses arias from Handel’s earliest years as a mature composer when he was in Italy for three years up to the oratorios he wrote towards the end of his life. During this time-span of more than forty years he created marvellous music that expressed – as David Vickers writes in his liner-notes – humour, cruelty, affection, tyranny, loyalty, culpability, mournfulness and celebration, and one must marvel at – which I have done more than once in my reviews – how unerring he is in his ability to express exactly the feeling he wants, and how he almost always finds an individual tone, whether in melody or rhythm or accompaniment, which makes each aria stand out as something original. His sensitive application of orchestral colours is for instance striking. The remorse Cosroe feels in the aria from Siroe (tr. 1) is underlined by the throbbing bass-line, like a bad conscience making his heart beat more violently. Abner’s When storms the proud to terror doom from Athalia (tr. 3), dramatic and vigorous, gets an extra injection of pride and majesty through the prominent oboes and bassoons. In the aria from Catone an obbligato bassoon adds depth to Metastasio’s lyrics, like a second bass voice. Catone, incidentally, was a pasticcio, a work based on an earlier work, with music borrowed from other composers. In this case the source was Leonardo Leo’s Catone in Utica from 1728, and besides the overture and nine arias by Handel , there were six by Hasse, four by Porpora and a couple of arias by Vivaldi and Vinci. This aria was from Porpora’s Poro.
 
I needn’t go into each individual number but readers can rest assured that each and every one of them has something dramatic and beautiful to offer. A wealth of wonderful music lies waiting for the prospective buyer. But it is also a pleasure to savour Christopher Purves’s singing. Not exactly in his first youth he has retained the beauty of his voice and the dramatic expressivity and there are no blemishes concerning uneven delivery or disturbing vibrato – it is a youthful voice. Designated as baritone on the sleeve he has an almost tenor-like brilliance in his upper register, but he also has the black low notes of a true bass. As a matter of fact he has a phenomenal vocal range which he displays to the full in the remarkable chamber cantata Nell’africane selve, written in Naples in summer 1708. Here he covers a range of more than two and a half octaves (from a bottom C sharp to a top A) with enormous leaps. Virtuoso it certainly is and the aria Langue, trema, e prigionero (tr. 14) is particularly testing. But there are also beautiful lyrical passages, as the concluding aria Chiedo amore (tr. 16).

After a long and varied programme he rounds off with two peaceful arias of great beauty. First Argante’s Vieni, o cara from Rinaldo (tr. 21), a caressing love song, and then Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain from Joshua, noble and solemn. We have come to rest.

Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen accompany excellently and are heard on their own in a vigorous reading of the concerto grosso in F major, Op. 3 No. 4. The recording is excellent, David Vickers’s liner notes ditto – though they could have been organised in the same order as the music is on the disc – and much better baroque music making is hard to imagine. A dead cert candidate for my Recordings of the Year!

G÷ran Forsling
 
Contents
Siroe, Re di Persia, HWV 24:
1. Gelido in ogni vena [5:02]
Esther, HWV 50░:
2. Turn not, O Queen, thy face away [2:49]
Athalia, HWV 52:
3. When storms the proud [3:11]
Belshazzar, HWV 61:
4. Oh, memory! – [0:45]
5. Opprest with never-ceasing grief [4:01]
Nicola PORPORA (1686 – 1768)
Catone, HWV 47:
6. ╚ ver che all’amo intorno [7:55]
George Frideric HANDEL
Concerto grosso in F major, Op. 3 No. 4, HWV 315: [10:33]
7. Andante – Allegro – Lentamente [3:56]
8. Andante [1:56]
9. Allegro [1:32]
10. Minuetto alternativo [3:08]
Tolomeo, Re di Egitto, HWV 25:
11. Piangi pur [2:59]
Athalia, HWV 52:
12. Ah, canst thou but prove me! [3:40]
Nell’africane selve, HWV 136a: [13:55]
13. Nell’africane selve [1:34]
14. Langue, trema, e prigionero [6:31]
15. Nice, lÓ fra confine [1:19]
16. Chiedo amore [4:29]
Joshua, HWV 64:
17. The walls are levell’d – [0:30]
18. See, the raging flames arise [3:18]
Esther, HWV 50a:
19. How art thou fall’n from thy height! [6:37]
Siroe, Re di Persia, HWV 24:
20. Tu di pietÓ mi spogli [4:27]
Rinaldo, HWV7a:
21. Vieni, o cara [4:15]
Joshua, HWV 64:
22. Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain [3:07]

 

 



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