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finesse and stylistic assurance

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea, Pastoral entertainment in one act, HWV 49a (1718 version) [86:48]
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Galatea
Allan Clayton (tenor), Acis
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Damon
Neal Davies (bass-baritone), Polyphemus
Jeremy Budd (tenor), Coridon;
Rowan Pierce (soprano) in choruses
Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn
rec. 2017, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, England
Reviewed in 5.0 surround
CHANDOS CHACONNE CHSA0404 SACD [37:38 + 49:10]

It almost suffices to say, "Superb; buy it!", but my editor would ask about the other few hundred words. To forestall that, I will enlarge my commentary.

Donald Burrows' excellent study of Handel quotes Sir David Dalrymble, a Scottish advocate and politician who was staying at the same grand house as Handel, that, "a Little opera (is) now a makeing ... whereof the Musick will not be made publick. The words are to be furnished by Messrs Pope & Gay, the musick to composed by Hendell." Why Handel, after a period of huge operatic success in London, should compose a piece for private performance, is easily explained. The opera houses had closed, for reasons too complex to explain here. To replace his income from opera, Handel was pleased to be able gain the patronage of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (and later Duke of Chandos) at the latter's grand house in Edgeware, Cannons. One product of this was the "pastoral entertainment" Acis and Galatea. It was Handel's first major dramatic composition in English and is very effective indeed. Despite being “pastoral”, it manages without nymphs and shepherds and is quite tightly dramatic with some real emotions on display. In later life, with the opera houses reopened, Handel expanded the piece to a more public and operatic scale but this never achieved the success of his other works at the time. It is this first, small scale, version of 1718 that has won a firm place in the repertoire. The Early Opera Company gets by with five soloists, bolstered by one extra voice in the choruses, and just sixteen instrumentalists drawn from the UK's pool of wonderful baroque specialists - unsung heroes all. It is gripping from beginning to end.

There are opportunities galore for the five characters to strut their musical stuff. Neal Davies rages superbly as Polyphemus, as well as singing his calmer air “Oh ruddier than the cherry”. Lucy Crowe as Galatea is gorgeous in “Hush ye pretty warbling choir!” and the heartfelt “Heart the seat of soft delight”. Allan Clayton as Acis sings his long air “Love in her eyes sits playing” with appropriately rapt concentration. The pairs of recorders and oboes twitter joyfully from the presto opening sinfonia and throughout their various obligato roles. Joseph Crouch, the ubiquitous continuo cellist, is clearly heard to the centre right of the sound stage. Does he ever stop playing I wonder? I have previously enjoyed John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque soloists on a decades-old (1978) pair of Gramophone Award-winning Archiv LPs but this is its match in every respect, not least in the advantage of having a top-class surround recording. Gardiner's performance is still available from Presto on two CDs and still sounds very good.

The excellent booklet includes a fascinating essay by Dr David Vickers of the RNCM which provides a good background for the listener. There is also a full libretto as well as the usual biographical notes about the performers. All this for the amazingly generous price of effectively two SACDs for the price of one. The recording at St Jude-on-the-hill is lovely and spacious. Producer Rachel Smith and engineers Jonathan Cooper and Rosanna Fish are to be congratulated.

Dave Billinge



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