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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Rinaldo (excerpts) (1710) [72.53]
Ensemble Hypothesis: Leopoldo d’Agostino (recorder and direction); Sigurd van Lommel (counter-tenor); Cinzia Zotti (viola da gamba); Alain Cahagne (harpsichord and organ)
rec. Charterhouse of Valbonne, 2002; College of Roquemaure and Church of Notre Dame des Pommiers, Beaucaire, 2004
SOLSTICE SOCD 230 [72.53]

 

Handel’s Rinaldo was his first opera written for London. It was based on a new libretto, written in English by Aaron Hill and translated into Italian by Giacomo Rossi, who would be responsible for adapting a number of libretti for Handel. The story would have been a familiar one, based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata but mixing in elements of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The resulting opera called for a number of spectacular stage effects. Handel balanced these with some of his most winning music. He cheated a little though, around two thirds of the score is based on existing material written during his period in Italy - and thus unlikely to be familiar to his London audience.

The result was a great success and did much to establish Italian opera in London. It also, of course, established Handel himself in London as well.

In an age without gramophone recordings, popular music was disseminated via publication; anonymous adapters would produce chamber versions of pieces suitable for use in small venues and in the home. Handel himself rarely produced printed full scores of his operas and oratorios, to have done so would have increased the risk of pirate performances. But before the end of the first run of Rinaldo, pirate publisher John Walsh had produced a printed volume of arias from the opera, ‘adapted curiously’ to allow chamber performance.

Handel would eventually have a formal relationship with Walsh but at this early stage in his career, Walsh’s publications were produced without Handel’s sanction. He simply issued a selection of the best arias.

The French group, Ensemble Hypothesis, has had the idea of re-creating a hypothetical chamber performance of a selection from Rinaldo using Walsh’s publication as the basis. To this they have added an additional selection of music to give the listener a greater taste for the plot dramatics of the opera. 

The ensemble has Sigurd van Lommel as the sole singer which means that he must take a variety of roles, encompassing music written for different singers. For the duets, he is joined by d’Agostino’s recorder.

As chamber music, the results are wonderfully effective. The group plays the overture and the various pieces of battle music. The lively interplay between the three musicians is a joy. If the disc had consisted solely of instrumental adaptations, then I would have been pleased beyond measure. You never get the feel that this is music cut down to a smaller size. The instrumentalists give Handel’s lines their full weight and create believable chamber music. 

Unfortunately, van Lommel is not really up to the task of impersonating the starry personnel for whom the opera was originally written. His voice has something of a hollow sound and his sense of line is not ideal. At times he has an annoying tendency to put bulges on individual notes. More worryingly, he has trouble with the frequent passages of fioriture, the results being often smudgy and unconvincing. He never gives you the feeling that he is even attempting to differentiate between the various characters so the final result is curiously lacking in dramatic shape.

The challenge of incarnating all the characters from the opera would test the greatest of singers and here von Lommel is not up to the job. This unfortunately means that Ensemble Hypothesis’s lovely grasp of Handel’s music is rather lost. I do hope that they record more, either with a more suitable singer or perhaps on their own.

Robert Hugill

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