Wednesday 21 April 2021

A disc to enjoy: William Towers and Armonico Consort in Handelian Pyrotechnics

Handelian Pyrotechnics; William Towers, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks; SIGNUM

Handelian Pyrotechnics
; William Towers, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks; SIGNUM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The counter-tenor engages and seduces in this selection of Handel arias, all coming from roles that he has performed on stage

To a certain extent titling a disc Handelian Pyrotechnics might seem something of a hostage to fortune, but in his booklet note for his new disc, counter-tenor William Towers explains that the original title for the disc was Handel for Life and all arias on this new disc come from roles that Towers has performed on stage, in some cases many times over. So, on Handelian Pyrotechnics from Signum Classics, counter-tenor William Towers and the Armonico Consort, director Christopher Monks, perform arias from Handel's operas Xerxes, Poro, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, Orlando, Rodelinda, Radamisto, Agrippina and Ottone.

Unsurprisingly, six of the nine operas feature leading roles created by the castrato Senesino (who sang 18 new roles for Handel) from Radamisto (in 1720) to Orlando (in 1733), whose voice was described by the composer Quantz in 1719 just before Senesino first sang for Handel, "He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled. … he sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner." And we also get an aria from Rinaldo on the disc, a role which Senesino sang for in 1731 for Handel's last revival of an opera originally written in 1711.

So, a lot to live up to.

Towers can certainly sing the allegros with great fire, and he includes Giulio Cesare's short but brilliant call to arms, 'Al lampo dell'armi' (regrettably, but understandably performed without chorus); there are rapid divisions galore and a nice trill or two indeed. The same is true of Orlando's Act Two aria, 'Cielo! Se tu il consenti' where we can admire his stylish way with this faster music.

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera, 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera, 2018
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

But it is in the more pathetic arias included here that Towers excels and here he emulates Senesino who, for all Handel's pandering to the castrato's desire to cut a dash always had one or two pathetic arias. Towers has all the technique needed to not only spin a lovely, well supported line, but to do so with flexibility, sensitivity and attention to the words

His messa di voce is always beautifully done, finely controlled without overdoing things and we know that Senesino excelled at this gradual (and very effective) swell and diminuendo on a single note. Towers can also float a high line beautifully, and only very occasionally are you aware that the tessitura taking him to the edge of the realms of the possible, but often this is because he does not compromise by singing the passage louder than it needs to be. And it is worth bearing in mind that, for all the beauty of this music most of the men were at the end of their tether, as Towers comments in the booklet "So frequently his [Handel's] operas reveal their most devastatingly beautiful and uplifting music when life is at its darkest"

But even when being pathetic, Handel does not let the singer off lightly so that arias such as 'Cara sposo' from Rinaldo have a short but vividly fast B section, contrasting the "rapid divisions" with the more pathetic A section.

Not all the operas are well known, so that Poro is something of a rarity still but the title role was Towers' first Handel role. We caught Towers in the title role of Radamisto with English Touring Opera in 2018 [see my review], but we heard him back in 2012 in a Handel recital with the Armonico Consort at the Buxton Festival entitled Too Hot to Handel! [see my review] And we end the recital with the vivid swagger of 'Dopo, l'orrore' from Ottone, which is another opera we've probably all heard of but not necessarily seen in the flesh.

Towers is tasteful when it comes to ornaments, and clearly he has been reading what (little) we know about Handel's views on these matters. In the slower numbers Towers often 'fills in the gaps' in a very effective way and whilst there are optional high notes they are rarely obtrusive, by and large he keeps to the original compass of the arias.

The arias are accompanied by a small, but perfectly formed ensemble of nine led by Christopher Monks on harpsichord and indeed the players bring a lovely chamber feel to this music. They never feel underpowered, and the faster arias are vividly articulated but what I enjoyed most were the slower ones where you sense the two violins weaving around Tower's vocal line. 

This is very much a portrait disc, William Towers is centre stage and he does not disappoint. There are only 11 arias on the disc, as the longest is over eight minutes long and two are over seven minutes long and that is with speeds which are flowing (neither Towers nor Monks ever try to overdo things in the slower number, thank goodness). And throughout singer and instrumentalists hold our attention and more. The selection of arias also provides a variety of interests, with enough fast moments to spice up the pathetic arias, and a nice sprinkling of lesser known operas and not so frequently performed arias from well-known operas. Definitely a disc to enjoy repeatedly.

George Frideric Handel (1686-1759) - Ombra mai fu (Xerxes, HWV 40)
George Frideric Handel - Se possono tanto due luci vezzose (Poro re dell’Indie, HWV 28)
George Frideric Handel - Al lampo dell’armi (Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17)
George Frideric Handel - Dall’ondoso periglio – Aure der per pietà (Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17)
George Frideric Handel - Cara Sposa (Rinaldo, HWV 7)
George Frideric Handel - Cielo! Se tu il consentí (Orlando, HWV 31)
George Frideric Handel - Dove Sei (Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi, HWV 19)
George Frideric Handel - Qual nave smarrita (Radamisto, HWV 12)
George Frideric Handel - Ombra Cara (Radamisto, HWV 12)
George Frideric Handel - Tacerò, purchè Fedele (Agrippina, HWV 6)
George Frideric Handel - Dopo l’orrore (Ottone, re di Germania, HWV 15)
William Towers (counter-tenor)
Armonico Consort (Geoff Coates & Jane Downer, oboes, Kelly McCusker & Emma Lake, violins, Joanne Miller, viola, Poppy Walshaw, cello, Toby Carr, theorbo, Siona Spillet, bassoon)
Christopher Monks (director & harpsichord)
Recorded at St Mark's Church, Leamington Spa, 5 & 6 November 2019

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