Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Triumph of Truth and Time

Handel - The Triumph of Time and Truth
Handel The Triumph of Time and Truth; Ludus Baroque, Richard Neville-Towle; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Rare outing on disc for Handel's final oratorio.

Handel's The Triumph of Truth and Time has had something of a poor reception from Handel commentators. The 1757 oratorio came at the very end of Handel's composing life, and quite how active a role he took in the work's creation is something of a moot point. The oratorio is a re-booting of the 1737 Italian language Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Verita which itself was based on the 1707 oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. The new English version had a libretto by Rev Thomas Morell, the librettist of Handel's Theodora and Jephtha, and along the way the work acquired new movements and some significant choruses taken from earlier works. This element of self-pasticcio has made people turn their noses up at the resulting work, but this new recording of The Triumph of Time and Truth has us to take a fresh look at the work.

Richard Neville-Towle conducts the Scottish group Ludus Baroque with Sophie Bevan as Beauty, Mary Bevan as Deceit, Tim Mead as Counsel/Truth, Ed Lyon as Pleasure and William Berger as Time. The recording is on the Delphian label.

In his introductory essay Peter Small argues for the work being a deliberate summation of Handel's career, including elements from earlier works. In Small's view, the inclusion of a major chorus from the Foundling Hospital Anthem points to the way the work can be seen as reflecting the oratorio's theme of public atonement by good works (Handel was a great supporter of the Foundling Hospital).

The work is certainly quite a bewildering listen for the unsuspecting hearer, because of course Handel raided the original Italian oratorio for later works, and this combined with the flying in of choruses from existing works does give the piece a strong feeling of self-pasticcio. You are constantly finds moments which seem familiar from elsewhere.

The plot, such as it is, is quite simple; Pleasure and Deceit do verbal combat with Truth and Time for the soul of Beauty, who is seduced by the delights of youth. Finally Beauty accepts the ephemeral nature of beauty and the necessity to accept life as it is and atone. I am not sure whether it is deliberate but the good pair have low voices (alto, bass) whilst the bad pair are high voices (soprano, tenor).

Sophie Bevan makes a fine Beauty, singing with lovely warm lyric tone. She is fluidly even in the passagework, and full of delight charm. Mary Bevan is a poised Deceit, again with a lovely warm tone and she is admirably fluent and delights in the more complex passagework, showing herself well able to seduce. Ed Lyon is similarly seductive as Pleasure, singing with vibrant virile tones whilst confidently capable in the complex passages. And when Pleasure is defeated, he gets a wonderful, dazzling bravura aria. Tim Mead is admirably firm and even toned, with some hauntingly beautiful tone. William Berger is admirably vigorous and vivid of voice as Time.

In this version, the chorus get plenty to do and the chorus of Ludus Baroque impress with their confident and shapely performance. The orchestra are nicely supportive with some finely sprung rhythms, and great solo moments. Conductor Richard Neville-Towle is good guide to this overview of Handel's career, and clearly has a feeling for the work. The results are highly convincing and make a good case for the argument for the work as some sort of summation.

Except, that the work neither gels nor grips the way other work's of Handel's do. Partly, this is the fault of Thomas Morell's rather prosy libretto. Morell is not the greatest of librettists and in his earlier work for Handel, the composer was able to subvert Morell's text with his music. But here, he was setting text pre-existing music, so there are no moments where Handel the composer rushes you past a textual infelicity. Handel was ill at the time the work was compiled, and much of the detailed work was probably done by JC Smith his assistant. In fact, Smith and Morell would go on after Handel's death to raid the composer's back catalogue to create further pasticcio oratorios.

Simply, Morell was no Milton and for me the combination of music and text just does not work as well as previous oratorios. That said, this is a very fine performance and the individual moments are highly persuasive, with some superb singing and playing. Buy it for some glorious musical moments, not for the plot.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - The Triumph of Truth and Time
Beauty - Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Deceit - Mary Bevan (soprano)
Counsel/Truth - Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Pleasure - Ed Lyon (tenor)
Time - William Berger (bass)
Ludus Baroque
Richard Neville-Towle (conductor)
Recorded 4-7 August 2013, at Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh
DELPHIAN DCD34135 2CDs [78.28, 76.15]

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