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GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2021

assumed. Nevertheless, it makes sense that Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling’s edition of a concert version aims to fashion ‘a convincing musical narrative, despite the music being dislocated from much of its original theatrical context’. The use of low pitch (A=392Hz) enables idiomatic high tenors on ‘countertenor’ parts; a continuo group of several theorbos, guitar and harpsichord varies in combinations to accompany singers without bowed bass violin; and an equally balanced dozen-strong string band has bass violins on the lowest part instead of cellos (no anachronistic double basses, and seldom plucked continuo). Those used to bigger bassdriven sonorities might need to acclimatise to the airy climes of the opening Prelude but the articulation and texture of Purcell’s string-writing in the hushed Rondeau (played with cultured inégales) also benefits from French-style bow holds and unwound gut strings set up with equal tension.

The flexible interactions between nine soloists (with three additional singers in choruses) is impeccable – such as the freeflowing conversation between Ashley Riches’s genteel Drunken Poet (not a lager lout on the rampage) and fairies teasing without malice. The comedy has the atmosphere of a sly wink rather than a bold farce, and the spell cast for the mediocre bard to ‘sleep till break of day’ has soft compassion. The Masque of Night sustains an exquisite mood for Titania’s enchanted slumber: Carolyn Sampson’s beguiling Night is accompanied weightlessly by muted violins and violas, Anna Dennis’s Mystery has intimacy and discretion, Jeremy Budd’s mellifluous Secrecy is partnered sweetly with a pair of recorders, and Sleep is whispered spellbindingly by Riches (the chorus ‘Hush, no more’ exploits silences unerringly).

‘If love’s a sweet passion’ is a refined duet between Dennis and James Way, with sensitive choral refrains. Sampson’s gossamer-like ‘Ye gentle spirits of the air’ is accompanied with imagination and tact by harpsichordist Jan Waterfield, whereas the comic duet for the Mummerset haymakers Coridon (Riches) and Mopsa (Charles Daniels) has plenty of flirtatious sauciness. Mhairi Lawson’s acerbic ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’ is feisty rather than melancholic. The Masque of the Seasons in celebration of Oberon’s birthday is by turns articulate, relaxed (Rowan Pierce’s Spring), bucolic (Budd’s high tenor Summer introduced by chuckling oboes), commanding (Roderick Williams’s declamatory Winter), and splendid (the trumpet-festooned choruses).

Sampson’s heart-rending singing of the

Plaint (relocated as an interlude between Acts 4 and 5) is a sublimely attuned dialogue with Christopher Palameta’s soulful oboe. Jean-François Madeuf’s silver trumpet (without modern vent holes) spars suavely with Budd in ‘Thus the gloomy world’ (its rapturous middle section recalling humankind’s state of innocence is judged perfectly), and also provides a jubilant platform for Lawson’s brilliant ‘Hark the echoing air’. The Chaconne for the Chinese dancers, repositioned after the final chorus in praise of Hymen, is played with swaying sophistication. Even if a splash more extrovert energy and tauter speeds here and there might have yielded more theatrical fizz, McCreesh’s labour of love has abundant nuances and transcendent beauty. David Vickers (June 2020)

Salieri Armida Lenneke Ruiten sop �Armida Florie Valiquette sop �Rinaldo Teresa Iervolino mez �Ismene Ashley Riches bass-bar �Ubaldo Namur Chamber Choir; Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset Aparté B b AP244 (125’ • DDD) Includes synopsis, libretto and translation

Following their excellent recordings of Salieri’s French operas of the 1780s,

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have turned to an early opera written for Vienna. Armida was premiered at the Burgtheater on June 2, 1771, when the composer was two months short of his 21st birthday. The story of the sorceress Armida and the paladin Rinaldo, taken from Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, had been the subject of many operas, notably those by Lully and Handel. How bold of the young Salieri, I thought, to risk comparison with Gluck, whose protégé he was; but in fact Gluck’s Armide was composed a good six years later.

Actually the master’s fingerprints are all over this splendid score, starting with the Overture. Rinaldo has forgotten his duty as a crusader and willingly fallen into the clutches of the sorceress. Salieri follows one of the precepts in the preface to Alceste (published in 1769), where Gluck wrote that the overture ‘ought to apprise the spectators of the nature of the action’. There are echoes of Orfeo ed Euridice: almost comically so in Ubaldo’s ‘Ecco l’onda insidiosa’, where the oboe solo and accompanying twiddles are straight out of Orpheus’s ‘Che puro ciel’. Rinaldo’s ‘Vedo l’abisso orrendo’, with its B flat alto horns, recalls the bravura aria from Il Parnaso confuso that was to become ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ in Orphée et Eurydice.

Salieri used those high horns twice more in Armida, and indeed one of the features of the opera is the attractive scoring. The oboe at Ubaldo’s entrance is supported by flutes; it provides a serene conclusion to the Overture and a bucolic introduction to his discovery of Rinaldo; a little earlier, in appealingly full-toned phrasing by Olivier Rousset, it lulls Rinaldo to sleep, after which the strings alone play a gentle ballo. Trombones appear, unsurprisingly, with a chorus of demons. Notable also is the way one section will often follow another without a break. The pacing of recitative (both secco and accompagnato), aria, ensemble and chorus is quite admirable.

The first scene is set on the flowery bank of a lake in a park – a ‘parco delizioso’ – with the entrance to Armida’s palace visible in the distance. The first voice we hear after a chorus of young maidens belongs to Armida’s confidante. The near-contralto tones of Teresa Iervolino are just right for Ismene’s warning that Armida’s safety is threatened by the arrival of an unknown ship. The only male voice belongs to Ubaldo, the knight who has come to rescue Rinaldo. Ashley Riches, suitably martial when scattering the demons, ends the first act by vigorously commanding God to remove the blinkers from Rinaldo’s eyes.

The lovers don’t appear till Act 2. The joyous thirds with which they sing of their happiness turn to desperation and – on Rinaldo’s part – bafflement when Armida returns with the news about the strange ship. Lenneke Ruiten and Florie Valiquette blend perfectly. The latter makes a magnificent Rinaldo – originally a castrato part – with fluent coloratura in ‘Vedo l’abisso’. She is also perfectly good in the sleep scene; but on ‘The Salieri Album’ (Decca, 11/03) Cecilia Bartoli is even better, the passion and urgency at the start followed by an exquisite mezza voce. Ruiten, too, is no slouch in the coloratura of ‘Tremo, bell’idol mio’: tender there, she rages impressively when, abandoned at the end, Armida flies off on winged dragons. Her singing is brilliant, touching and unfailingly lovely.

The 20-strong Namur Chamber Choir, whether cavorting rustically or threatening demonically, provide excellent support. Their contribution to a subterranean scene, preceded by a solemn orchestral gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2021 3939

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