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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Serse: Frondi tenere e belle ... Ombra mai f, HWV40 (1738) [3:51]
Rinaldo: Venti, turbini, prestate [3:42]: Cara sposa, amante cara, HWV7 (1711) [8:52]
Jephtha: These labours past, HWV70 (1751) [6:25]
Solomon: Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, HWV67 (1748) [3:03]
Ariodante: Scherza, infida, HWV33 (1735) [8:33]
Rodelinda: Io t'abbraccio, HWV19 (1725) [7:18]
Alcina: Verdi prati, HWV34 (1735) [4:04]
Giulio Cesare in Egitto V: Overture [2:47]: Va tacito [6:16]: Al lampo dell' armi [3:09]: Caro! (Bella!) Pi amabile belta, HWV17 (1724) [4:57]
Barnaby Smith (countertenor)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
The Illyria Consort
rec. January and March 2021, Voces8 Centre; live in concert 25 May 2021 (Pi amabile belta)
Texts and translations included
VOCES8 VCM136 [63:03]

I like Barnaby Smith’s honesty. In his notes he refers to this disc, somewhat ruefully, as a kind of vanity project, given that whilst he has been very active in the ensemble Voces8, this is his first solo CD. If it is, as he suggests, a kind of ‘playlist of favourite tracks’ recorded by his vocal idols, then there is sufficient variety, in terms of interspersed orchestral movements, to ensure that it’s a viable listening experience in its own right. True, there are no novelties in the vocal selections, nothing from the less well-known operas or oratorios, but this is Smith’s selection, after all, and a calling card of his expertise in the repertoire he has already sung.

It does take a certain amount of self-confidence to open a recital with Ombra mai f but Smith proves equal to the challenge: his line is smooth, he doesn’t over-ornament and his vocal production is commendably full without any ostentatious expressive devices intruding between the beauty and directness of the music and the listener. He studied a number of years ago with Andreas Scholl and one can perhaps detect something of his influence. Certainly, in the two famous arias from Rinaldo he is more aesthetically and vocally in the lineage of Scholl, Bowman and Esswood than, say, David Daniels, though Daniels, of course, has recorded Rinaldo with triumphant success. Venti turbini has clarity and precision of articulation. It’s not presented as a showpiece virtuoso vehicle, the tempo is not pushed but the orchestral rhythm is still buoyant – Bojan Cičić, the leader of The Illyria Consort, works well with Smith and proves an admirably supportive colleague throughout. There’s vocal warmth in Cara sposa and a finely judged B section though for my own tastes the da capo is a little over decorated and the changes of colour here – an attempt to vest the music with a greater degree of expressive candour – can endanger the vocal line.

Scherza infida from Ariodante is another example of his tempo discretion and of taking plausible decisions with regard to the musical temperature of an aria. He prefers subtle heightening of the line to wholescale bravura. Verdi prati is all the better for the simplicity and directness of its delivery.

There are three duets with soprano Mary Bevan. The first is These Labours Past from Jeptha, where the voices entwine and contrast finely, the music vibrant and buoyant. Io t’abbraccio from Rodelinda, a duet of real intensity and feeling, is again a fine example of the way their voices coil over and around each other, neither dominating, whilst the orchestra offers its own expressive commentary on their predicament. The final duet comes in a sequence from Giulio Cesare in Egitto which starts with the work’s overture and ends with Caro! (Bella!) Pi amabile belta, an exultant finale to this disc and one which is culled from a live, not a studio, performance. In between, Smith sings the famous hunting aria Va tacito – the natural horn is ably played here by Gavin Edwards – and Al lampo dell' armi which he sings purposefully.

Warmth and clarity mark out Smith’s performances. His musicianship is thoughtfully employed in this lockdown-recorded disc and the selection gives great pleasure.

Jonathan Woolf

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