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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Parnasso in Festa (The festival on Parnassus for the Wedding of Thetis and Peleus) HWV73 (1734)
David Hansen (countertenor) - Apollo
Robin Johannsen (soprano) - Clio
Kangmin Justin Kim (countertenor) - Orfeo
Jenny Högstrom (soprano) - Calliope
Silke Gäng (mezzo-soprano) - Cloride
Franscesca Ascioti (alto) – Euterpe
Luca Tittoto (bass) - Marte
La Cetra Barockorchester and Vokalensemble Basel/Andrea Marcon
rec. Martinskirche, Basel, Switzerland, 2016
Notes in English and German
Italian text, and translations in 18th-century English, and German included
PENTATONE PTC5186643 SACD [44:12 + 72:23]

Handel’s attractive serenata, Parnasso in Festa, was written in 1734 for the wedding of Anne, the Princess Royal (eldest daughter of George II), and Prince William of Orange. In form it could be seen as falling midway between his fully-fledged Italian operas, and the oratorios which he was beginning to develop in earnest around the same time. Handel was then at the height of his operatic powers – the serenata was composed between Orlando and Ariodante, with Alcina following the latter – and its arias exemplify the best coloratura writing of such operas. But he also mined his recently completed English oratorio Athalia for some of its material, and so the musical structure is more varied than the operas usually are, incoporating more choruses amongst its recitatives and arias, and a greater fluidity of form arises with some of the solo numbers leading directly into those choruses, or the arias not always following the strict, repetitive da capo format.

Although the work lacks a real dramatic plot as such, its conceit is vividly Baroque nonetheless by enlisting various mythological figures to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis, who stand in allegorically for the Prince and Princess. Presiding over the festivities on Mount Parnassus is David Hansen’s lithe-voiced Apollo, who commands his fellow inhabitants, the Muses, to join in the feast with his incisive singing, which is direct and eloquent when necessary, though sometimes his coloratura sounds a touch wobbly. His florid interjections in the work’s concluding chorus, though, are wild and impressive without actually going awry, fortunately. As Clio reminds Apollo of his unrequited love for Daphne, Hansen expresses the ardour of his former passion movingly with the regretful tone and tasteful embellishments of his aria ‘Sin le grazie nel bel volto’, before calling upon everybody to put that sadness aside and praise Bacchus instead, in alcohol-fuelled revelries. Robin Johannsen matches that mood as Clio with the brightness and focus of her singing in the high register of her music.

In Part Two, the example of Orpheus, forever mourning his fatally disrupted love for Euridice, is brought to our attention as a paradigm of fidelity. Kangmin Justin Kim realises that role with an unaffected purity in his singing, exuding a stateliness and dignity in the accompanied recitative ‘Dopo d'aver perduto il caro bene’ that would be fully worthy of Gluck’s Classical simplicity in his great ‘reform opera’ on the subject. He achieves a striking effect in establishing the character’s continuing anguish with the ad lib leap of an octave at the opening of ‘Ho perso il caro ben’, which thereby becomes something more than the mere expression of benumbed self-pity in its heart-rendingly lilting music.

Part Three returns to the temper of the opening as all the characters convene to rejoice in the wedding, heralded by Luco Tittoto’s appearance as Marte (Mars), singing with agility and lightness rather than the, perhaps expected, bellicose heft, though it is true that his aria in Part One, ‘Del nume Lieo’, which sets the tone for him, is not a rage or warlike number but a jovial one instead (to invoke a deity who does not feature in this drama). Along the way are assured and characterful contributions from Jenny Högstrom, Silke Gäng, and Franscesca Ascioti as the Muses, Calliope, Cloride, and Euterpe respectively.

Andrea Marcon directs La Cetra Barockorchester in an unfailingly spirited account of the score which plays up its dramatic possibilities wherever possible. The overture – although omitting the gigue second section – is brisk, even percussive, with harpsichord and strumming lutes prominent within the texture. As such it exhibits a strongly rhythmical pace as though the music were notated in 2/2 rather than 4/4, which adds purpose and flair, similar to the same energy which Laurence Cummings brings to his performances of Handel which will be familiar to regular attenders of the London and Göttingen Handel festivals.

A vivid note of rusticity is created in the concluding chorus of Part One in praise of Bacchus with the addition of tambourines, whilst the solemn character of Part Two’s opening with forceful timpani makes for a portentous atmosphere harking back to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. The same vigour and enthusiasm carry over to the Vokalensemble in their performance of the choruses – alert and rigorous in those at the opening of Part One; the suspensions of ‘Già vien da lui il nostro ben’ rendered strenuously and dramatically; and murky, Stygian colours that also sound slightly witchy for the chorus in the first scene of Part Two seemingly conjuring up the Underworld which holds Euridice captive.

It is a nice touch that the English translation of the libretto provided in the booklet is that by George Oldmixon in the London Workbook of 1734, which further distils the authentic flavour of this unusual work in its original context. As such it follows the same presentation as the previous recording of the work by The King’s Consort for the Hyperion label. That serves the serenata more than adequately with a dependable and lively interpretation by some excellent soloists under Matthew Halls’s direction. But Diana Moore often sounds too squally there in the central role of Apollo and, for all its undeniable alacrity, the performance as a whole is probably edged out by the yet more vivacious reading by Marcon and his forces. The notes indicate that it sets down a live rendition only in parts, the rest presumably drawing from a studio recording, as seems to be evident from a couple of jolting edits.

In any case Pentatone’s new release still provides an ideal opportunity for those who are not yet convinced by, or fearful of, the formal straightjacket of full-blown Handelian opera seria to sample the structure and style of such works in a manner that is less dramatically contorted and long-winded, but at least as musically engaging as many of the operas. Handelians who do not already know the work will be amply rewarded in investigating it through this new recording.

Curtis Rogers



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