Wednesday, 9 January 2013

CD Review - Handel's finest arias for Base voice

Perhaps we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Handel wrote for some of the greatest singers and singing actors of his age. In our era of  stylistic specialism it is all to easy for baroque opera to be relegated to the area of the specialist performer; but just listen to a great voice like Joan Sutherland or Renee Fleming, to understand. And in the oratorios, whilst great bravura is rarely used (Handel was writing for a group of singers that he had trained himself), expressivity was what was called for, the qualities of a great singing actor. For this new disc of Handel's bass arias, Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen have teamed up with Christopher Purves.

Purves is perhaps a surprising choice, his stage repertoire has generally veered towards the 19th century and later. But he has never been anything other than versatile (he joined Harvey and the Wallbangers after leaving University) and has developed into one of our great singing actors, with a feel for text, line, music and drama. It is these qualities which he brings to this disc Handel arias.


This is not a single personality disc, in the line of Arias for Montagnana, instead Purves puts on multiple personalities moving from Italian oratorio to Italian opera to English oratorio. Whilst not every personality is an ideal fit, Purves displays a dazzling grasp of the essential music-drama, creating a vividly different character in each aria but always through the music. What impressed here was the way Purves avoids the desire, often common in singers who work in 19th century music and later, to add distortions and extra-musical expressions to the line. Instead he works within the music, to vivid effect.

Not everything is perfect, his passagwork is not always as pin-sharp as perhaps Montagnana's probably was. But Purves more than copes with the outrageous tessuturas in some arias, and rises to bravura display where necessary.. But more than that there, there is a thinking intelligence behind each aria, giving thoughtful, well crafted and profoundly expressive performances.

The disc opens with Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto from Rinaldo (1711), villainous Argante's opener full of the hissing of serpents. Purves vocal production was quite a surprise, higher and more forward than I had expected, but it suits this music nicely. He sings Argante's aria with great panache, accompanied by some fabulous trumpet playing.

His singing of Polyphemus's arias O ruddier than the cherry from Acis and Galatea (1718) is beautifully shaped. Though his performance is not as comically orotund as Owen Brannigan's, Purves nicely points the words even towards rolling his r's. He follows with a truly stunning account of the two and a half octave vocal part of Fraa l;'ombre e gl'orrori from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), Handel's Italian take on the story (written 10 years earlier than the English one). He sings the long descending phrases with a beautiful smoothness and manages to both make the long held low notes sonorous, whilst the top sounds finely free. Quite a tour de force, and very moving as well.

Mirth, admit me of thy crew from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) is nicely poised, with some very infectious horn playing. Both this and the Acis and Galatea items are performed with their short introductory recit. In that case of Lucifer's Caddi, e ver from La Resurrezione (1708), the accompanied recitative is almost an item in its own right. More long descending phrases and long lines, Purves is confident in tone but not too triumphal, singing with lovely grainy vocal tone.

In Tears, such as tender fathers shed from Deborah (1733) the elderly Israelite Abinoam expresses relief his son has returned from the war. A gentle and delicate piece, with two flutes, and Purves displays a lovely trill. Another father, Gobrias in Belshazzar thanks the conqueror Cyrus for deposing his son's murderer. This  was written for the 1751 revival of the oratorio rather than the 1745 premiere. Purves display familiar, but welcome, virtues here, combining power with focus, a lovely sense of line and a vivid communicativeness when it comes to words. Words are important in Handel's oratorios, and Purves never gives them short shrift, always making the most of each nuance.

The role of Zoroastro in Orlando  (1722) was created in expanded form to suit the talents of the bass Antonio Montagnana. But Purves does not sing the great opening arioso which Handel wrote for the singer. Instead we get Sorge infausta una procella from the end of the opera when Zoroastro takes pity on Orlando and resolves to cure him of his madness. Archangelo are wonderfully evocative in the ritornelli and Purves is nicely expressive in his passagework. The whole result has a rather delightfully toe-tapping feel to it.

Purves is suitably vengeful, though within the vocal line, in Racks, gibbets, sword and fire, the Roman governor's aria from Theodora (1750). We move from raging humans to raging winds in Volate piu dei venti from Handel's act of Muzio Scevola (1721) - the first two acts were composed by Filipppo Amadei and Giovanni Bononcini. The result is very busy, and nicely urgent.

The short, but beautifully shaped Vieni, o cara from Agrippina (1709) provides a pause point before the bravura of Nel mondo e nell'abisso from Riccardo Primo (1727). Full of runs and leaps, it was written for Italian bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi playing the tyrant Isacio. 

Two arias from Handel's Apollo e Dafne (1710) display the two sides to the god Apollo. Mie piante correte, take at a  very lively tempo with a running bassoon describing the chase, describes how the god tries to press himself on Dafne vivd fashion. The second, Cara pianta, from the end of the cantata is simply beautiful.

Timotheus's aria Revenge, Timotheus cries from Alexanders Feast (1736) is giving thrilling form as the singer calls for revenge on for the ghost of unburied Greek soldiers. And then, after all these emotions, were are played to sleep with Somnus's aria Leave me, loathsome light from Semele (1744).

Purves is brilliantly accompanied by Arcangelo, who not only provide some stunning solo instrumental moments, but are a constant sympathetic and disciplined presence on the disc, responding well to Jonathan Cohen. 

The booklet includes full texts and translations along with an excellent article by David Vickers.

This is a vividly absorbing disc, where Purves by turns entrances and rages, capturing the variety of Handel's bass characters and the voices for which they were written. It is one of those discs which you feel would be enjoyed by a far wider audience than just those of us interested in Handel opera.

Handel's finest arias for Base voice
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759)
Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto (Rinaldo) [4.50]
I rage, I melt, I burn! - O ruddier than the cherry (Acis and Galatea) [1.21, 3.13]
Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo) [6.59]
If I give thee honour due - Mirth, admit me of they crew (L'Allegro, il Penseroso et il Moderato) [0.12. 2.34]
Qual'insolita luce - Caddi, e ver (La Resurrezione) [1.09, 4.15]
Tears, such as tender fathers shed (Deborah) [2.30]
To pow'r immortal my first thanks are due (Belshazzar) [3.55]
Impari ognun da Orlando - Sorge infausta una procella (Orlando) [1.11, 4.35]
Racks, gibbets, sword and fire (Theodora) [3.56]
Volate piu dei venti (Muzio Scevola) [3.24]
Vieni, o cara (Agrippina) [1.45]
Nel mondo e nell'abisso (Riccardo Primo) [3.13]
Mie piante correte - Cara pianta (Apollo e Dafne) [2.50, 7.27]
Revenge, Timotheus cries (Alexander's Feast) [7.55]
Leave me, loathsome light (Semele) [3.40]
Christopher Purves (bass)
Arcangelo
Jonathan Cohen (conductor)
Recorded at All Hallows, Gospel Oax, London on 19, 20, 23, 24 January 2012
HYPERION CDA67842 1CD [70.34]


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