Handel ‘Finest Arias for Base Voice’ Agrippina – Vieni, o cara. Muzio Scevola – Volate più dei venti. Orlando – Impari ognun da Orlando… Sorge infausta una procella. Riccardo Primo – Nel mondo e nell’abisso. Rinaldo – Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo – Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori. Acis and Galatea – I rage, I melt, I burn!…O ruddier than the cherry. Alexander’s Feast – Revenge, Timotheus cries. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – If I give thee honour due…Mirth, admit me of thy crew. Apollo e Dafne – Mie piante correte…Cara pianta. Belshazzar – To pow’re immortal my first thanks are due. Deborah – Tears, such as tender fathers shed. La Resurrezione – Qual’insolita luce…Caddi, è ver. Semele – Leave me, loathsome light. Theodora – Racks, gibbets, sword and fire Christopher Purves bass Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen Hyperion F CDA67842 (71’ • DDD • T/t)
Purves joins Cohen’s new group for wide-ranging Handel Basses in the 18th century rarely enjoyed star billing. Public adulation, with fees to match, was usually reserved for temperamental sopranos and castratos. One of Handel’s basses, Gustavus Waltz, may even have served a spell as the composer’s cook. Yet, as this enterprising recital reveals, Handel wrote superb, varied music for several remarkable basses over his 50-year career, from the Neapolitan priest Antonio Manna, probable creator of Polifemo in the Italian serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, to the anglicised German Henry Reinhold, his oratorio bass of choice from the late 1730s. In between, during his hectic years as opera composer-cum-director, Handel engaged two celebrated Italians: Giuseppe Maria Boschi, a baritone rather than bass who specialised in raging tyrants, and Antonio Montagnana, praised by the music historian Charles Burney for his ‘depth, power and mellowness, and peculiar accuracy of intonation in hitting distant intervals’.
No Handel aria trades in ‘distant intervals’ more spectacularly than Polifemo’s ‘Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori’, in which the oversexed cyclops compares himself to, of all things, a bemused butterfly. Handel later recycled this, in a slightly simplified version, for Montagnana in Sosarme. Unfazed, Christopher Purves sings the original, stunningly, expanding its two-anda-half octave compass (high tenor A to subterranean bass D) by inserting a fathomless low B flat in the da capo. But the result is no mere circus trick. Possessing in effect two voices in one – a ringing, incisive high baritone with a sonorous bass extension – Purves veils his tone to convey bemusement, even pathos.
Purves’s flair for specific characterisation enlivens every number on the disc. Egged on by Arcangelo’s splenetic strings, he works himself into a rage worthy of Boschi in an aria from Riccardo Primo. Coloratura, here and elsewhere, is always precisely focused, wide leaps cleanly negotiated at speed. In ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ he delightfully suggests destructive lust barely contained beneath the would-be ingratiating veneer. Elsewhere Purves relishes the tortuous chromaticism of Lucifer’s ‘Caddi, è ver’ (La Resurrezione) and the genial swing of the ‘hunting’ aria from L’Allegro, abetted by Roger Montgomery’s rollicking horn obbligato. He can be dulcet, too, whether in Claudius’s attempted seduction of Poppea in Agrippina or the arias for two chastened fathers, Abinoam (Deborah) and Gobrias (Belshazzar), the latter growing more intense and troubled as it proceeds. Trumpet and voice vie thrillingly in the perennial bass favourite, ‘Revenge, Timotheus cries’, while in the final number, Somnus’s ‘Leave me, loathsome light’, Purves evokes drowsiness and lassitude without recourse to a white, ‘yawned’ tone. Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo savour the rich string textures here, typical of their feeling for colour throughout a recital that pays eloquent tribute to Handel’s boundless invention in composing for bass voice: a counter, as David Vickers suggests in his informative note, to the clichéd notion that his bass arias are all undifferentiated bluster. Richard Wigmore
Steffani ‘Mission’ Alarico il Baltha – Schiere invitte, non tardate. Sì, sì, riposa, o caro…Palpitanti sfere belle Arminio Suoni, tiuoni, il suolo scuota Henrico Leone – Morirò fra strazi e scempi La libertà contenta – Deh stancati, o sorte. Foschi crepuscoli. Notte amica al cieco Dio. Svenati, struggiti, combatti, suda La lotta d’Hercole con Acheloo – La cerasta più terribile Marco Aurelio – Non si parli che di fede Niobe, regina di Tebe – Amami, e vederai b . Dell’alma stanca a raddolcir le tempre…Sfere amiche, or date al labbro. Ove son? Chi m’aita? In mezzo all’ombre…Dal mio petto. Serena, o mio nel sole…Mia fiamma…Mio ardore a . T’abbraccio, mia Diva…Ti stringo, mio Nume a Le rivali concordi – Timori, ruine a Servio Tullio – Ogni core può sperar La superbia d’Alessandro – Non prendo consiglio. Tra le guerre e le vittorie Tassilone – A facile vittoria. Dal tuo labbro amor m’invita. Padre, s’è colpa in lui. Più non v’ascondo. Sposa, mancar mi sento…Deh non far colle tue lagrime I trionfi del fato – Combatton quest’alma a . Mie fide sciere, all’armi! Cecilia Bartoli mez with a Philippe Jaroussky counterten b Rosario Conte lute Chorus of Radiotelevisione Svizzera; I Barocchisti / Diego Fasolis Decca F 478 4732DH (80’ • DDD • T/t) Also available on B b 6 478 4721DH
Bartoli and her mission to champion forgotten Steffani Oh my word, what have we here? A fat hardback, stocked with essays on the music, 18th-century diplomacy and the history of the house of Hanover? Stagy photos of Cecilia Bartoli as a shaven-headed cleric and a rather glamorous spy? Adverts for a documentary DVD to come, as well as a game for your iPad? My tip is to listen to the CD before you bother with any of this harmless fun, for in the end it will stand or fall on the music it contains. And that, as it happens, is seriously interesting.
Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), a composer, bishop and diplomat, is surely one of Baroque music’s most undeservedly neglected figures. A demonstrably important influence on Handel – who would have met him in Hanover, where Steffani was an Apostolic Vicar – he is known, if at all, for his elegant vocal duets, yet also composed about 20 operas of his own. The two dozen arias on this CD include no fewer than 21 world premiere recordings.
There is not room here to do justice to the personality and variety they display: suffice it to say that they range from the heroic to the tender, the loudly celebratory to the intimately tragic and the humorous to the deeply touching with all the ease and sensitivity of a natural opera composer. Like the arias of his contemporary Alessandro Scarlatti, Steffani’s can be short and pithy, yet his melodic writing is more shapely than Scarlatti’s, and sometimes even more so than Handel’s. Steffani’s music also reveals familiarity with the French style of Lully, something else which he may well have passed on to Handel. But enough now of Handel – these exquisite little arias have charm, colour and depth enough to win hearts on their own.
Cecilia Bartoli is to be both congratulated and thanked for this project, which appears to be very much a personal labour of love. Her dazzlingly virtuoso and urgently expressive performances betoken nothing less than total commitment, with every single aria delivered with as much dramatic intensity and focus as if it had been lifted straight from a fully staged production. With spirited accompaniment
30 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2013