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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Total Eclipse: Music for Handel’s Tenor
Aaron Sheehan (tenor)
Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra/Stephen Stubbs (lute & guitar)
rec. 2017, St. Thomas Chapel, Kenmore, USA
Sung texts enclosed
NAXOS 8.573914 [68:00]

“Music for Handel’s Tenor”, reads the subtitle of this collection. Who was he? He was John Beard (c. 1716 – 1791) and he first came to Handel’s attention when he performed the small role of the Israelite Priest in the oratorio Esther. It was at a performance to celebrate Handel’s 47th birthday in 1732 and Beard was at the time a chorister in the Chapel Royal and only 16 years old. Quite soon Handel realised the capacity of the young singer and in 1736 he wrote a part specifically for him in Alexander’s Feast. It was a public success and from then on he was “Handel’s Tenor” even though his growing popularity made him sought after from other composers as well. By the side and instead of sopranos and castratos the tenor voice became in vogue. Beard appeared in each of Handel’s oratorios and he reached the summit with the title role in Samson – a dramatic role that required him to sing both florid arias and lyrical airs. Fittingly enough this collection is titled Total eclipse! after the most famous aria from this oratorio, where he laments the loss of his eyesight. Also fittingly the programme opens with a recitative and aria from Alexander’s Feast, the first collaboration between the two.

To step into John Beard’s shoes requires an extraordinary tenor, and Grammy awarded Aaron Sheehan seems to have all the necessary attributes: beautiful voice, technically faultless, superb articulation, expressivity and good sense for rhythm. The latter feature is particularly salient in Jonathan’s first act aria from Saul: No, cruel father, no! (tr. 6), which is sung when Saul is about to throw his javelin towards David. This, and most of the other numbers, are seldom heard out of context, and it is within the dramatic situation that the effect is most evident. In isolation most of the numbers here are over almost before they have started. Exceptions are Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs from Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (tr. 4) – one of Handel’s finest arias – and of course the arias from Samson (tr. 23 – 29) – one of the great principal parts in Handel’s oeuvre. It was sung with deep involvement by Alexander Young on the old Archiv recording under Karl Richter, which was my introduction to this arguably greatest of Handel’s oratorios. Comparing Aaron Sheehan’s historically more correct reading with Young’s more middle-of-the-road version is unfair to both, the greatest difference being the crisp and springy playing on period instruments by the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra under Stephen Stubbs for the former, versus the more plodding music making of Richter’s Munich Bach-Orchestra, playing on modern instruments. It’s two generations miles apart, but I’m still very fond of the Richter approach, heavier but more in line with the sombre drama. Listening to Sheehan/Stubbs in isolation I have no objections at all to either the singing or the readings. And it’s good to have this music available without having to consult the complete works when one feels for a round of Handel tenor arias. Total eclipse is certainly most touching.

As a bonus we are also treated to two of Handel’s concerti grossi superbly played. This adds further to a very attractive disc that every lover of Handel’s music should consider.

Göran Forsling

Alexander’s Feast, HWV 75 (exc.) [3:30]
1. Part II Recitative: Give the vengeance due [1:22]
2. Part II Aria: The princes applaud with a furious joy [2:08]
Israel in Egypt, HWV 54 (exc.) [2:04]
3. Part III Moses’ Song: The enemy said, I will pursue [2:04]
Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76 (exc.) [4:23]
4. Aria: Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs [4:23]
Saul, HWV 53 (exc.) [6:07]
5. Act I Accompagnato: O filial piety! [1:21]
6. Act I Air: No, cruel father, no! [1:25]
7. Act II Recitative: Ah, dearest friend [0:36]
8. Act II Air: But sooner Jordan’s stream [2:55]
Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op. 3, No. 2, HWV 313 [10:41]
9. I. Vivace [1:48]
10. II. Largo [2:28]
11. III. Allegro [1:52]
12. IV. Minuet [1:26]
13. V. Gavotte [3:07]
Messiah, HWV 56 (exc.) [7:21]
14. Part II Recitative: Thy rebuke [1:35]
15. Part II Arioso: Behold and see [1:31]
16. Part II Aria: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell [2:15]
17. Part II Aria: Thou shalt break them [2:00]
Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op. 6, No. 7, HWV 325 [12:36]
18. Largo [1:06]
19. II. Allegro [2:32]
20. III. Largo e piano [1:59]
21. IV. Andante [3:54]
22. V. Hornpipe [3:05]
Samson, HWV 57 (exc.) [21:00]
23. Act I Air: Torments, alas, are not confin’d [4:05]
24. Act I Air: Total eclipse! [3:14]
25. Act I Recitative: My griefs for this [0:59]
26. Act I Air: Why does the God of Israel sleep? [4:48]
27. Act II Air: Your charms to ruin led the way [3:01]
28. Act III Recitative: Let but that spirit [0:41]
29. Act III Air: Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed [4:12]

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