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George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Abbandonata
Italian Cantatas (ed. Robert King)
Dietro l’orme fugaci, HWV105 ‘Armida abbandonata’ [18:59]
Tra le fiamme, HWV170 [18:06]
Figlio d’alte speranze, HWV113 [13:26]
Agrippina condotta a morire, HWV110 [24:20]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. 9-12 March 2018, Alpheton New Maltings, Suffolk, UK. DDD.
Pitch A=415
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download from vivatmusic.com.
VIVAT VIVAT117 [74:51]

Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV76 (1739).
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Polish Radio Choir
Dunedin Consort/John Butt
rec. Krzysztof Penderecki Hall, ICE Kraków Congress Centre, Poland, 27–29 March and 2–3 April 2018. DDD.
Texts included.
Reviewed as 24/96 download from linnrecords.com.
LINN CKD578 [61:15]

What could be more wonderful for lovers of Handel’s music and of Carolyn Sampson than to have two albums released very close together in which the two are combined – double extra helpings: delectable music, delectably sung.

I’m sure that I’m wasting time writing this review; most of those to whom these releases appeal will already have ordered them in one format or another. One cause for pause: the Linn Ode for St Cecilia’s Day is up against formidable competition from a Hyperion rival, about which more anon.

If you are seeking instant gratification, the 24-bit downloads of both these releases are well worth paying a little extra for and you can start listening without waiting for the disc(s) to arrive. The Linn, typically around £12.50 on CD, ranges from £8 (mp3) via £10 (16-bit lossless) to £15 (24/96 or 24/192). The Vivat costs £13 on CD, purchased direct – some dealers may have it for a little less – and the same prices as the Linn in mp3, 16-bit and 24/96 (no 24/192). Subscribers to Naxos Music Library will find the Vivat there; the Linn had not yet been added when I checked.

The Vivat recording follows a successful album of Handel oratorio arias from 2014 on which Carolyn Sampson joined Iestyn Davies and the King’s Consort (Vivat VIVAT105 – review review). One of the label’s first releases, it established the revived King’s Consort and Robert King as forces to be reckoned with. I missed it at the time, so I’m pleased to make good the omission and recommend it now.

If Handel wrote anything more beautiful than Eternal source of light divine, I’ve yet to hear it. There’s a very fine older recording from The King’s Consort with James Bowman (Meridian CDE84480) but Sampson and the new King’s Consort come as close to perfection as one is likely to hear. I wish they had recorded the complete Ode for Queen Anne’s Birthday from which the aria is taken. There’s an album containing the whole work from Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire (Avie AV2270, with Zadok the Priest and Dixit Dominus) but Johan van Veen’s preference – review – was for another King’s Consort recording from Hyperion (CDA66315 – DL News 2014/15).

On that album of Handel’s Music for Royal Occasions, James Bowman and New College Choir join the Consort and while the Te Deum for Queen Caroline and the wedding anthem Sing unto God may not quite hit the same high spot inspirationally, this is another of King’s wonderful Handel recordings. Better still, it’s available to download in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from Hyperion for £6.99. (CD, from the same link, from the Archive Service.)

There’s also a fine recording on the Obsidian label, devoted mainly to music for the coronation of Queen Anne’s successor, George I (CD711 – DL News 2014/6).

An earlier (2006) BIS recording of Handel duets from oratorios paired Carolyn Sampson with Robin Blaze and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment directed by Nicholas Kraemer (BIS-SACD-1436 – DL News 2013/13). Download the BIS from eclassical.com, 16- or 24-bit, with pdf booklet containing texts and translation. Sampson has also appeared on many of the now complete and hugely successful BIS series of Bach cantatas with Masaaki Suzuki at the helm, and she featured with Robert King and his Consort on several very fine Hyperion recordings including, coincidentally, Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, of which more anon.

The Italian cantatas recorded here are a handful of those which he wrote for the entertainment of various patrons during his stay in Rome. Glossa have recorded a whole series of these in recent years, with Roberta Invernizzi (soprano) and La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni. There’s a mid-price 2-CD distillation from the series which contains three items in common with the Vivat recording: Tra le fiamme, Figlio d’alte speranze and Agrippina condotta a morire, plus Apollo e Dafne and other works (Portrait GCDP10002. NB these are shortened versions, arias only – see below for complete versions from this series).

Armida abbandonata features on Volume 2 of the series, Cantatas for Marchese Ruspoli (GCD921522). That was my Recording of the Month in 2016 – review – and it’s my benchmark rather than the two arias from it which Annette Dasch sings on Sony 88697100592 – review.

I shan’t fail to return to those Glossa recordings, or to Emma Kirkby with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood in Tra le fiamme, with three other Handel Italian cantatas on a classic Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre recording, thankfully restored on mid-price Eloquence 4767468 – review. (Ignore the Buywell purchase link.) I shan’t, though, be listening very often to a Berlin Classics recording on which Adele Stolte, recorded in East Germany in 1970, is just too stodgy in Tra le fiamme and two other cantatas – review.

I’ve just read an article which suggests that the modern preference for fast tempi in baroque music is motivated by the tendency of younger people to maintain their attention for long. That may be a factor, but you need only compare Stolte with Kirkby, Invernizzi or Sampson to hear the benefits that modern historically informed performance brings, even if it leads occasionally to over-fast tempi.

The Stolte may be off my list; I shall, however, certainly add the new Vivat recording to my regular listening alongside the Kirkby and Invernizzi recordings. I’m not even going to try to compare the three very fine accounts of Tra le fiamme, except to note that the Invernizzi 2-CD set offers only two-thirds of the work and half of Agrippina. For the whole work from her, you will need Volume 1 of the complete series (GCD921521) and for her complete Agrippina Volume 7 (GCD921517: Recording of the Month – review).

Both the Glossa series and the new Vivat come with very good recording quality, the latter especially so in 24-bit sound, and very fine presentation, and the Decca still sounds well for its age.

The new Linn recording comes up against formidable competition in the more regularly recorded Ode (or Song) for St Cecilia's Day. So strong is the competition that Trevor Pinnock’s fine recording with The English Concert and Choir on the DG Archiv Blue label is now download only (E4745492). The strongest rival, however, comes from the King’s Consort and Robert King on a 2003 Hyperion recording, with Carolyn Sampson (again) and James Gilchrist as soloists (CDA67463). Not only is this a very fine performance, very well recorded, it also contains Cecilia, volgi un sguardo, HWV89, not one of compositions for his Roman patrons but composed in England in 1736 to accompany Alexander’s Feast.

This is one of the finest of King’s series of Handel recordings for Hyperion, and the inclusion of the extra work makes for better value than the new Linn. Only those averse to Gilchrist and greatly preferring Ian Bostridge or those demanding better-than-CD sound would eschew it: the SACD, like most from this source is no longer available and there is no 24-bit download. On the other hand, the CD can be ordered from Hyperion for £8 and the 16-bit download, with pdf booklet, from the same source at the same price, is hardly inferior to the 24-bit Linn.

Sampson is superb on both recordings: sample her But oh! What Art can teach on either recording and you will fall for it. It’s hardly rushed on Hyperion, but it’s taken slightly more slowly on Linn, where the tempi in general are slightly slower and repeats observed more scrupulously. I really cannot choose and I doubt if you will be able to.

The same applies in comparing James Gilchrist and Ian Bostridge in When nature underneath a heap of jarring atoms lay; both are very good and, in this case, even the chosen tempi are the same to the second. With excellent choral and orchestral support on both recordings and direction from two of the best baroque music scholarly conductors of our time, only the addition of the substantial (29 minute) extra work on Hyperion or the 24-bit sound from Linn can sway the balance.  Even sound-wise, as I have indicated, there isn’t that much to choose.

Two very recommendable new releases, then, with my enthusiasm for the Linn diminished only slightly by the existence of the equally wonderful Hyperion alternative containing substantially more music.

Brian Wilson



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