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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea, Pastoral entertainment in one act, HWV 49a (1718 version) [95:26]
Norma Burrowes (soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Martyn Hill, Paul Elliott (tenors), Willard White (bass), English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. February 1978, Henry Wood Hall, London
English libretto included in the booklet
Presto CD
ARCHIV PRODUKTION 476 2520 [41:48 + 53:38]

This “Gramophone Awards Collection” re-issue from Presto won the Early Music Award 1978. It is a masque or “pastoral entertainment”, a favourite court diversion involving music, dancing, mime, dialogue and spectacular sets. The edition recorded here is of the first, small-scale version from 1718, not the revision and expansion of 1739, which never enjoyed the same success as its earlier predecessor.

This DG Archiv recording is by no means the only option for that 1718 version, although given that Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s more popular works, surprisingly few recordings of it are wholly recommendable. However, Dave Billinge enthusiastically reviewed the recent Chandos issue and for the 1739 version there is a beautifully sung, if slightly humourless, account from William Christie on Erato. My own preference remains for this now venerable performance, as I find it to be more vivid, atmospheric and, overall, better sung than any other.

The vivacity of the opening sinfonia sets the tone for the whole recording and if the opening chorus is set to a text which sounds decidedly campy to modern ears with its “happy swains” “free and gay” the succession of absolutely delightful melodies, perfectly matched to the text, carries the day. Reacquaintance with this recording – which I have known since its first appearance - reminded me how many lovely tunes there were in this most graceful and delicate of Handel’s works. It is superficially rather restrained and “English” but is subtly suffused with a repressed passion which is almost Italianate – the young Handel had, after all, already set this myth once before in 1708 when he was in Italy, as the cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.

There is such variety of expression in this music, from the bucolic to the amorous - “Billing, cooing/Panting, wooing!” - to the vengeful and menacing – the latter being especially apparent in the portrayal of “the monster Polyphemus” by the chorus, which in this case consists of the five excellent soloists combined. Those soloists could not be bettered with one exception: Willard White’s Polyphemus – and of that more anon. Norma Burrowes is ideal as Galatea, and her pure, trilling soprano is exquisitely matched by lovely recorders. Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s lithe, flexible tenor portrays an Acis brimming with boyish desire; “Love in her eyes sits playing” is especially beautiful. He also teaches White a lesson in how to convey mood and colour text by the strutting manner in which Acis sings of his unswerving resolve to challenge Polyphemus in mortal combat. The orchestra’s over-emphatic bravado reinforces the futility of his aspiration – he is still a foolish shepherd boy who ignores Damon’s kindly, sensible advice and hubris ensures his demise.

Martyn Hill is similarly sweet-toned and makes an excellent job of the divisions in his arias – no aspirates there – and the poise of his legato singing succeeds admirably in presenting Damon as the voice of reason in contrast to Acis’ callow rashness.

As mentioned above, my one reservation about this recording resides in Willard White’s contribution. His “monster” is too avuncular, lacking teeth; he needed to be much nastier and not being a true, full bass, does not have the heft to make the low E resonate in “my capacious mouth”. He also needed to make more of text; I am reminded of the 1971 Juilliard masterclass he took with Maria Callas, in which she made insistent, repeated efforts to get him to colour his words more tellingly. We don’t really believe him when he exclaims “Torture! fury! rage! despair! I cannot, cannot bear!” Comparison with the vintage recording by Owen Brannigan reveals exactly what is missing; Brannigan is not constrained by any desire to sound too “musical” and as a result is so much more vicious, roaring and leaning menacingly into notes in a much more characterful manner – and yet he is in fact still singing very ”musically” with regard to implementing the technical aspects of the score. White’s voice and manner remain much better suited to his contribution to the choruses but he sings Polyphemus rather blandly.

That caveat apart, this remains the most recommendable of recordings of the 1718 version, even after more than forty years since it first appeared.

Ralph Moore

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