Monday 8 January 2018

A very personal sense of communication: Christopher Purves in Handel with Arcangelo

Christopher Purves (Photo Chris Gloag)
Christopher Purves (Photo Chris Gloag)
Handel arias, concerti grossi and overtures; Christopher Purves, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 7 2018 Star rating: 4.5
Christopher Purves in fine form in this programme of Handel's bass arias

Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo have recorded a follow-up to their 2012 disc of Handel arias on Hyperion, with a further disc of Handel's bass arias to be released later this year. In celebration of this, Christopher Purves joined Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo at Milton Court concert hall on Sunday 7 January 2018 for an all Handel programme. 

The arias were drawn both from the 2012 disc and the new one so that we heard 'Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto' from Rinaldo,  'Gelido in ogni veno' from Siroe, 'Opprest with never ceasing grief' from Belshazzar, 'Ah, canst thou but prove me' from Athalia, 'O ruddier than the cherry' from Acis and Galatea, 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori' from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, 'Racks, gibbets, sword and fire' from Theodora, 'How art thou fall'n' and 'Turn, not O Queen' from Esther. The orchestra also played the overtures from Agrippina and Theodora, the Concerto Grosso in D major Op.6 no.5 and Concerto Grosso in F major, Op.3 no.4.

The programme took the familiar form of alternating groups of arias with the orchestral pieces, though in each half we started with arias and Christopher Purves never left the platform, sitting at the side during the orchestral items listening actively. In fact, it is a format which is surprisingly difficult to bring off well. Many of the arias were designed to provide a form of emotional release following the tension generated during the preceding recitative, and without any preparation it can be tricky to understand the context. Excellent details were provided in the programme book, but the combination of the small point size of the printing and low light levels meant that this could only be consulted after the event. So, it says much for the highly communicative nature of Christopher Purves performance that so many of the items had significant impact.

We started with 'Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto' from Rinaldo, and it was Purves' rather thrilling sound which had impact, it is remarkable that he could combine such virile swagger with a confident negotiation of the work's more elaborate passages. 'Gelido in ogni veno' from Siroe combined a quite straightforward vocal line with a complex accompaniment, but the way Handel breaks the vocal line up (the character, Cosroe is contemplating the fact that he has ordered the death of his son), gave an emotional hesitancy to the music.

The overture to Agrippina combined the grand gesture with the fast and furious, all giving engaging rhythmic bounce, and there was some fabulous oboe playing too.

'Opprest with never ceasing grief' from Belshazzar was preceded by the very moving accompagnato, which helped set up the almost painful nature of the aria (Gobrias' recalling the death of his son), and Purves used a wide variety of colours in his tone to bring out the words.

Concerto Grosso in D major Op.6 no.5 started off rather grandly, but the instrumentalists still brought a lovely rhythmic bounce to the music, with a joyous energy in the faster section. With a second movement which superimposed cascades of notes over a basic rhythmic tread in the bass, a third which explored expressively intertwining lines, a lively and characterful fourth movement and a final graceful minuet, this was a work full of delights.

The first half finished with 'Ah, canst thou but prove me' from Athalia, an aria which probably needed a bit more context. As it was the piece seemed slightly bouncy for the words, though Purves' delivery was strong and confident.

The second half opened with a Polifemus sequence, arias which needed less explaining. First we heard 'I rage, I burn' leading to 'O ruddier than the cherry' from Acis and Galatea, which Purves delivered with a wonderful range of vocal colours, his characterisation making a really charming monster, here partnered by Rebecca Miles' fine recorder playing. Then we had Polifemo's 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori' from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, the arias wide range and spectacular leaps providing a challenge which Purves overcame well, phrasing beautifully despite the deliberately awkward lines and clearly relishing the low notes.

The overture to Theodora opened in darkly sonorous manner, whilst in the faster section the instrumentalists vividly threw ideas around the ensemble. And this was followed by Valens' 'Racks, gibbets, sword and fire' from the oratorio, an aria which requires little explanation and which Purves and the orchestra brought off very vividly, with Purves enunciating the text with great relish.

Concerto Grosso in F major, Op.3 no.4 started with a remarkably busy texture which managed to be graceful too, a sort of galant dance. There was an engagingly pastoral feel to the second movement, and an oboe cadenza led to some busy scurrying in which Handel used alternating solo groups of strings and wind to provide a variety of textures, and this feature continued into the graceful minuet finale.

The final two arias from Esther formed quite a down-beat ending to the concert. You really do have to know a bit of background to appreciate the full awfulness of Haman's fate which leads him to sing 'How art thou fall'n' and 'Turn not, O Queen'. Purves made the first highly thoughtful, with a real intensity of purpose, whilst the second was beautifully phrased and quietly intense.

This slightly down-beat feel continued with the encore, Somnus' 'Leave me, loathsome light' from Semele.

Christopher Purves is not a Baroque specialist, and he brought a real sense of curiosity to this varied repertoire along with a very personal sense of communication, bringing out the essentials in each aria and responding to the technical challenges with some bravura singing. He was accompanied on this journey by Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo at their most engaging. I certainly look forward to the disc.

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