Wednesday 1 December 2021

Virtuoso instrumental focus: in Handel's Unsung Heroes, David Bates & La Nuova Musica highlight Handel's brilliant instrumental solos in his arias

Handel's Unsung Heroes; Leo Duarte, Joe Qiu, Thomas Gould, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Christine Rice, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; Pentatone

Handel's Unsung Heroes
; Leo Duarte, Joe Qiu, Thomas Gould, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Christine Rice, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; Pentatone

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 November 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A disc that throws the focus onto some of the virtuoso instrumental solos that Handel wrote for the distinguished members of his theatre band

Handel's orchestra for his operas included some of the finest players of the time and Handel took advantage of this, writing solos for a wide variety of instruments in tandem with his vocal soloists. When listening these arias we can often focus so much on the singer (and their vocal pyrotechnics) that we almost take the instrumentalist for granted. Handel's Unsung Heroes, David Bates and La Nuova Musica's recent disc on Pentatone, aims to set this right. Yes, it does indeed feature soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies (all three on cracking form), but it also features a fine array of solo instrumentalists including Leo Duarte (oboe), Joe Qiu (bassoon), Thomas Gould (violin), Paul Sharp (trumpet), Roger Montgomery and Joseph Walters (horn), in music from TeseoRinaldoAlcinaGiulio Cesare in EgittoAriodante Aci Galatea e PolifemoAmadigi di Gaula, and Agrippina. It is a disc that invites us to consider these 'unsung heroes'.

We begin with a fine account of the overture from Teseo, which leads to a sequence from Rinaldo. First off the Marcia and Battaglia, in which Handel shows off his four trumpets magnificently and bearing in mind that the Haymarket Theatre stage could be opened up to a depth of some 90 feet, clearly we might expect dramatics on stage too. The aria, 'Or la tromba', features Iestyn Davies in sparkling form trading fanfares with trumpeter David Sharp; delightful and brilliant.

With 'Sta nell'Ircana' from Alcina we move from trumpet to horn. This was an instrument that featured in a number of Handel arias, often with hunting implications (you only have to think of Cesare's aria from Act One of Giulio Cesare). Here Christine Rice is a warm-toned and vivid Ruggiero duetting with a pair of horns (Robert Montgomery and Joseph Walters). The instrumental writing is not so virtuoso as for the trumpet, but still creating a vivid effect.

We don't hear the hunting aria from Giulio Cesare, instead we have the sequence where Cleopatra (Lucy Crowe) seduces Cesare (Iestyn Davies) via a vision of her enthroned with the muses - an instrumental ensemble of oboe, two violins, viola, viola da gamba, harp, theorbo, bassoon and cello. The scene is quite complex, with two sinfonias and aria, interrupted by recitative (with a brief contribution from counter-tenor Alexander Chance as Nireno), and throughout Handel balances his on-stage and off-stage orchestras. It is rarely staged like this, alas, but on disc we can but picture it. Crowe makes a delightful Cleopatra, expressively elegant, seriously yet seductive.

Afterwards we get Cesare's bouncily celebratory aria, 'Se in fiorito' where Davies duets with Thomas Gould's sweetly toned violin (and on stage I have often seen this staged with the singer and instrumentalist duelling on stage together).

I have always had a fondness for those arias, generally slow and serious, when Handel allows his bassoon player off the reins and writes a bassoon part independent of the bass line. The result is always special, and as a prime example we have here 'Scherza infida' from Ariodante, with Christine Rice in richly expressive form, partnered by the warm, chestnutty tones of Joe Qiu.

With Aci, Galatea e Polifemo we leap back to 1708 and Handel's trip to Italy. Here Lucy Crowe is partnered by Leo Duarte's elegant oboe playing and more sweetness from Thomas Gould. The result an imaginative delight.

'Venti turbini' is virtuoso solo for Rinaldo that concludes Act One of Rinaldo, except that the vocal soloist is joined by two instrumental soloists, here violinist Thomas Gould and bassoonist Joe Qiu, who have dazzling part of the their own. Iestyn Davies is Rinaldo; it is a role he has sung to great acclaim on stage and does not disappoint. By way of a contrast, we have the fine 'Passacaille' from Handel's early opera Rodrigo, with violinist Thomas Gould as the bravura soloist.

'Pena tiranna' is one of those 'hit numbers' that have gone on to have life outside their original opera, Amadigi di Gaula. Here Iestyn Davies is the finely expressive Dardano, complemented by the oboe playing of Leo Duarte, and bassoonist Joe Qiu. Here the vocal soloist does not duet, instead Handel creates almost a chamber concertino from oboe, alto voice and bassoon. Pure magic.

For the final aria we return to the soprano voice, Handel's big Italian success, Agrippina. Here Lucy Crowe sings Poppea's perkily sexy aria with it terrific passagework aided and abetted by the oboe of Leo Duarte.

Bates encourages his singers to contribute some quite spectacular and imaginative ornamentation in the da capo sections; perhaps pushing the envelope somewhat too much for some tastes, but in the context of this richly colour recital, it seems to work.

This disc could easily be seen as simply a greatest hits album; it does indeed have some very fine arias indeed, brilliantly and imaginatively sung by the three soloists. And whilst there is some spectacular singing and playing here, what I love is the way that in each of the arias voice and instrument(s) complement each other as equals. Listening to the disc makes you think about those unsung heroes, the instrumental players, many of whom died in penury and indeed Handel's players were instrumental in setting up the Fund for the Support of Decay'd Musicians and their Families, which still survives as the Royal Society of Musicians.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - arias and instrumental movements from Teseo, Rinaldo, Alcina, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Ariodante, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Rinaldo, Rodrigo, Amadigi di Gaula, Agrippina

Leo Duarte (oboe)
Joe Qiu (bassoon)
Thomas Gould (violin)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Alexander Chance (counter-tenor)
Paul Sharp (trumpet)
Roger Montgomery and Joseph Walters (horn)
La Nuova Musica
David Bates (director)
Recorded at Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, October 2020
PENTATONE PTC 5186 892 1CD [71.16]

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