The Handel revival continues apace as we approach the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2009. In February 2007 both of London's opera houses enjoyed strong productions of his operas, with Orlando at the Royal Opera House and Agrippina at ENO; March and April brought concert performances of Ariodante and Giulio Cesare at the Barbican; and the thirty-first London Handel Festival is around the corner in March 2008.
But it's on record that the composer seems to be especially well served at the moment. This year has already seen recordings of Fernando and Floridante from Alan Curtis and his Il Complesso Barocco (the latter recording superior to the former), as well as the Early Opera Company's Semele, and it seems appropriate to end the year with several Handel vocal works on CD.
First up is a slightly edited CD transfer of a classic recording from 1959. Handel's two-act 'masque' Acis and Galatea provided an early career highlight for Dame Joan Sutherland and was recorded in the same year as her acclaimed Covent Garden debut as Lucia di Lammermoor. It's a charming little piece full of lively arias, but there's nothing on the level of the greatest of the composer's operas. However, Sutherland's singing as Galatea is absolutely sensational on this recording of 'Arias and Scenes', which has been reissued by Chandos from the original Decca LPs. Whether in coloratura runs or long legato lines, Sutherland ticks every box in terms of technique, and her voice has never sounded more beautiful on record. Next to her, Peter Pears' voice sounds rather dry and his delivery is self-conscious in the part of Acis, though David Galliver and Owen Brannigan offer solid support as Damon and Polyphemus respectively. Eminent Handel scholar Thurston Dart plays the harpsichord continuo, but Sir Adrian Boult's conducting of the Philomusica of London is of the heavy, nineteenth-century variety. This makes the performance sound rather anachronistic to these ears and at times the recording is a harsh reminder of how far the study of eighteenth-century performance practice has come in the last forty-five years (John Eliot Gardiner's complete performance remains the best way to experience the work). Yet the sound quality is superb and for me the CD is a gem for Sutherland's splendid Galatea.
It's not known exactly when and where Handel composed his oratorio Esther (HWV 50b), but it's thought to have been drafted in 1718, the year in which Acis and Galatea was first composed, and completed for first performance in around 1720. It was given sporadically in the 1720s, yet the three performances given in 1732 under the auspices of Bernard Gates, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and a long-term colleague of Handel, were largely responsible for Esther's revival in the ensuing twenty years. When a performance was given in April 1732 without Handel's permission, the composer significantly revised the work and added several inspiring numbers, old and new (music from the Coronation Anthem 'Zadok the Priest' is instantly recognisable). This new recording, taken from live performances at the London Handel Festival in April 2002, is the first to incorporate the complete text from 1732 without omissions or subsequent additions. The work emerges as a riveting example of the composer's art, mixing exuberant contrapuntal choruses with arias that illustrate the characters' plights with a lightness of touch and depth of emotional that few composers can match. Laurence Cummings conducts an immaculate performance, which features outstanding singing from Rosemary Joshua (Esther), James Bowman (Ahasuerus) and Christopher Purves (Haman); the cast also includes former Royal Opera Young Artist Andrew Kennedy as the First Israelite. The only slight blot on the landscape is Rebecca Outram's squally delivery of the Israelite Woman's aria 'Heav'n has lent her ev'ry charm', but orchestra, choir and acoustic are well nigh impeccable and if the story becomes difficult to follow at times, nobody will care when the musicianship is this high.
However, my personal favourite of the recordings on offer here is George Petrou's of the 1724 masterpiece Tamerlano (HWV 18). I can't remember wanting to re-listen to a baroque opera recording so many times within the space of a month before I received this one; although it has one or two minor faults, this Tamerlano has a spellbinding quality which makes it one of the year's highlights for me. Handel's sixth full opera for the Royal Academy, Tamerlano was written over twenty days starting on 3 July 1724. Over the following months the musical text was modified in numerous ways, partly to lower the tessitura of the role of Bajazet for the tenor Francesco Borosini (whose voice Handel had never heard before he arrived in London in September 1724) and partly to incorporate new ideas suggested by a 1719 opera on the same subject by Gasparini, brought to London by Borosini who had appeared in it. The result was one of Handel's most extraordinary operas, equal to Rodelinda and Giulio Cesare, the other operatic masterpieces written in the same year. By recording the complete 1724 text, including all the recitatives, George Petrou and his period Orchestra of Patras have shown a faith in the work which has reaped dividends in demonstrating its power; the combination of their brilliant performance and the use of the complete text for the first time on record makes it an obvious first choice. Nicholas Spanos is the splendid countertenor in the title role, mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi brings out the conflicts of Andronico's character and baritone Tassis Christoyannis excels in the role of Bajazet, in spite of its having been written for a tenor. Some debate has taken place in other reviews as to the suitability of the recording acoustic, but I find it atmospheric - the recording was made after staged performances and there's a real sense of the theatre throughout. In short, this is essential listening for avid Handelians.
A few words to end for Ian Bostridge's 'Great Handel' disc, released on EMI in September 2007. While I can understand that some listeners might be disturbed by the tenor's purloining of a few arias which were written for different voice types - though like many composers from Bach to Britten, Handel himself was quite happy to chop and change to suit the talents of specific performers - I found this an enjoyable CD. The performances of 'Where'er you walk' from Semele, 'Comfort Ye' from Messiah and 'Total eclipse!' from Samson are all good examples of this tenor's nuanced approach to musical and verbal texts, and the duets with Kate Royal are luxuries. Whilst some of the other performances are a little more forgettable, this is nevertheless a more reliable disc than some earlier reviews might suggest and well worth investigating.