Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text


minuet songs for the coquettish Atalanta, or Serse’s invocation to a plane tree, ‘Ombra mai fu’, immortalised and sentimentalised as ‘Handel’s Largo’.

Until now the CD choice has been between the performances directed by Nicholas McGegan and William Christie. While there is much to enjoy in both, the Christie especially, they suffer from uneven casting. Not so this new recording, finely sung and conducted with style and spirit by Christian Curnyn. From the opening ‘Ombra mai fu’, taken flowingly (Anne Sofie von Otter and Christie are indulgently languorous here), AngloFrench mezzo Anna Stéphany sings superbly as the capricious Serse. Von Otter makes the king more of an absurd, if dangerous, psychopath. With her glowing, impassioned mezzo, Stéphany presents a more sympathetic character in arias such as the touching ‘Il core spera’, while giving full vent to Serse’s petulant wilfulness elsewhere. She hurls herself into the frenzied coloratura of ‘Se bramate’ and rages thrillingly in the torrential invocation to the furies just before the denouement.

As the heroine Romilda, Rosemary Joshua far eclipses her counterparts on the rival recordings, singing with sweet, sensuous tone and characterising deftly. She can be blithe, as in her Act 2 aria ‘Se l’idol mio’, but brings a fiery intensity to her agonised central aria, ‘È gelosia’. As her long-suffering lover Arsamene, David Daniels is at least a match for Lawrence Zazzo (with Christie), colouring his tone sensitively in the grief-laden ‘Non so se sia la speme’ and relishing the indignant coloratura brilliance of his one bravura aria, ‘Sì, la voglio’. With her highly distinctive androgynous contralto, Hilary Summers suggests the pathos as well as the outrage of Serse’s wronged fiancée Amastre (Christie’s Silvia Tro Santafe turns her into a frenzied virago on speed); and Joélle Harvey catches the flighty grace, as well as the hints of deeper feelings, in Handel’s delicious arias for Atalanta. Brindley Sherratt, oakily sonorous of tone as the worthy-but-dim general Ariodate, and the incisive Andreas Wolf as an un-hammy comic servant Elviro, complete a near-ideal cast. Once or twice – say, in Romilda’s aria ‘Chi cede al furore’ at the end of Act 1 – I thought Curnyn’s tempi a shade deliberate. But on the whole he paces the opera acutely, not least in the long stretches of recitative. For anyone wanting to acquire this jewel among Handel’s later operas, this beautifully recorded new version is the one to go for. Richard Wigmore Selected comparisons:

Hanover Band, McGegan (6/98R) (SONY) 88697 53206-2 Les Arts Florissants, Christie (2/05R) (VIRG) 640708-2

Pękiel Missa a 14. Missa concertata ‘La Lombardesca’. Resonet in laudibus. Dulcis amor Jesu. Magnum nomen Domini. Audite mortales. O adoranda Trinitas. Nativitas tua. Assumpta est Maria. Ave Maria The Sixteen / Eamonn Dougan Coro F COR16110 (66’ • DDD • T/t)

This rich celebration of the early Polish Baroque features a brace of Mass settings by Bartłomiej Pe˛kiel and half a dozen of his sacred songs, selected from just 29 surviving compositions. Until the middle of the 17th century the Polish musical profession, centred on Kraków and Warsaw, was dominated by Italian composers, including Marenzio, Pacelli and Scacchi. Pe˛kiel (fl1633-70) eventually became maestro di capella at Warsaw’s Chapel Royal before his death in 1670, having assimilated both the stile antico for his ‘strict’ polyphonic sacred vocal works, such as the crisp motet Assumpta est Maria, and the stile moderno for his more expressive and – to our ears – startlingly adventurous vocal-instrumental compositions.

This craftsman’s masterful music is presented here with an assured charisma by the mighty Sixteen (expanded to 17 singers for the beautiful extended dramatic scena Audite mortales – the undoubted highlight of the programme). Their associate conductor, Eamonn Dougan, draws typically golden performances from his vocalists and mixed instrumental ensemble. Of the latter, David Miller and Frances Kelly (on theorbo and harp respectively) provide filigree decorations. The trio of sackbuts blends seamlessly into the counterpoint of the extended Kyrie of the Missa concertata ‘La Lombardesca’, with its delightful circles-of-fifths progressions. Throughout the Mass, Pe˛kiel weaves a constantly shifting array of textures from his double choir, soloists and ‘band’.

The dryish acoustic of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, allows everything to be heard in clear relief. Sit back and relish this treasure trove which has clearly been prepared with passion. Malcolm Riley

Rameau Anacréon – Tendre amour. Les Boréades – Contredanse en rondeau; Un horizon serein. Castor et Pollux – Tristes apprêts. Dardanus –

Sommeil. Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour – Contredanse. Les fêtes d’Hébé – Tambourins. Hippolyte et Aricie – Ritournelle. Les Indes galantes – Chaconne; Forêts paisiblesbc; Régnez, plaisirs et jeux; Scène finale des Incasab; Vaste empire des mersc; Viens, Hymen. Naïs – Je ne sais quel ennui me presse. Les Paladins – Est-il beau; Pour voltiger dans le bocagea. Platée – Aux langueurs d’Appollon. Pygmalion – Overture. Zoroastre – Air tendre en rondeau; Ballet figuré. Zaïs – Coulez mes pleurs. Feuillages verts naissez (attrib Charpentier) Sabine Devieilhe sop aSamuel Boden ten b Aimery Lefèvre bar cParis Youth Choir; Les Ambassadeurs / Alexis Kossenko Erato F 934130‑2 (80’ • DDD • T/t)

This is an anthology with a difference. It consists of soprano arias, a duet and a trio, and a few orchestral pieces, covering stage works from Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) to Les Paladins (1760). In his booklet-note, Alexis Kossenko takes a quotation from Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie as a superscription: ‘True music is the language of the heart.’ Cupid is the director of this ‘grand théâtre’ and ‘we powerless humans [are] his actors, no, his marionettes’. Kossenko has conceived a miniature opera: his selection takes an imaginary heroine from innocence to, perhaps, ‘the incarnation of Love Triumphant’. On her journey she experiences desire, despair and a host of other emotions.

Actually, it doesn’t really work – La Folie’s parody of an Italian aria in Platée is hardly a paradigm of madness, for instance – but it makes for an entertaining sequence. One result of treating these disparate numbers as an integrated whole is that some of the pieces practically trip over one another: an air from Les Indes galantes leads straight into the overture to Pygmalion, to be abruptly followed by an air from Les Paladins and a contredanse from Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour. What comes across is the marvellous variety of Rameau’s invention, whether it be the maddeningly catchy ‘Air pour les Sauvages’ in Les Indes galantes or the achingly beautiful ‘Tristes apprêts’ from Castor et Pollux. Sabine Devieilhe gets everything right, with excellent support from Les Ambassadeurs. Texts are provided, but the anonymous translators don’t know their tambourins from their tambourines. Richard Lawrence


Skip to main content