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Handel resurrezione CKD675
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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
La Resurrezione, HWV 47 (1708) [117.18]
Mary Magdalene – Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Angel – Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Mary Cleophas - Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
St. John the Evangelist – Hugo Hymas (tenor)
Lucifer – Ashley Riches (bass)
The English Concert/Harry Bickett
rec. 18-21 April 2021, Sage Gateshead, Newcastle, UK
Italian text and English translation
LINN CKD675 [64:48+52:30]

La Resurrezione is the largest and longest piece from Handel’s Italian period, an oratorio offering two hours of music originally played by nearly fifty instrumentalists. I refer you to reviews on MusicWeb of previous recordings (see below, at the end of this review) for the historical background and context of this work; suffice it to say that it was a literal spectacular showcasing the talents of a precocious young composer who set out to surprise and delight his audience, especially with his extravagant instrumentation. The English Concert here consists of a small period band of around thirty players, including a dozen violins - so not as many as at the premiere – and a trombone, for which no part survives, but that instrument is used here in the bass line as we know one was hired for the premiere, which was the only performance in Handel’s lifetime - although in typical Handelian fashion, bits of it were recycled in later works.

The Easter story is told over two, consecutive days, Saturday and Sunday. Its treatment is unusual in that there is no narrator or chorus as such - but those soloists briefly combine to act as a chorus at the end of each of the two parts. The five soloist characters express their emotions in real time, the main focus being on the reactions of the two women. As a result, the piece is rather static, but opens in surprising fashion with a bravura aria for a triumphant angel then a confrontation with a sneering Lucifer, narrating Christ’s resurrection and the Harrowing of Hell.

Unlike some other commentators, I cannot say that I always find the music here in general to be Handel’s best; indeed, I am sometimes bored, but the inventiveness of his orchestration is one of the great attractions of the work. That soon becomes apparent in the beguiling wind textures he creates for Mary Magdalene’s first aria “Ferma l’ali” where flute and recorder combine over a droning ground to create a dreamy, pastoral atmosphere – a device heard in the later London Italian operas and also prefigured here in “Augeletti, ruscelletti” (Little birds and brooklets). The score calls for soloists of the highest calibre. Lucy Crowe’s pure, agile, fluty soprano is a joy throughout, as is Iestyn Davies’ warm countertenor, especially when it is matched with the viola da gamba, but I don’t much care for Sophie Bevan’s laboured vibrato and habit of squeezing notes. With some notable exceptions, nor do I ever much enjoy Handel’s often formulaic bass arias and Ashley Riches’ nasal bass here does nothing to change my mind, in that his music isn’t very interesting and his singing is frankly disappointing, being unattractive of tone, with groaning low notes, windy top ones and clumsy, aspirated divisions. Tenor Hugo Hymas is a pleasing, light Evangelist who sings his gentle arias suavely and expressively. Vocal highlights include Iestyn Davies singing Mary Cleophas’s da capo aria ‘Naufragando va per l’onde’, whose outer parts bracket a lovely, contrasting, slow central section and which makes demands upon the oboes as great as those upon the vocalist. A second highlight is Davies’ aria duet featuring the two trumpets, “Vedo in ciel”.

This is by no means the only option available to the Handelian wanting to own this early work, but previous recordings conducted by Vitale on Brilliant in 2008 (review ~ review) and Haim on Virgin in 2009 (review) both received qualified welcomes from previous reviewers, so I advise some reading and sampling to find your preference preparatory to purchase.

Ralph Moore

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