Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr here assemble all the viola da gamba sonatas written by three composers born in the propitious year of 1685: one each by Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, and three by JS Bach. Isserlis plays them on the gamba’s modern cousin, the cello, and the microphone loves his playing, picking up all the nuances and scampering asides from his soft-spoken instrument which can sometimes get lost in big concert halls. Egarr on harpsichord matches Isserlis’s eloquence and rambunctious energy all the way. The dreamy, airy slow movement of Bach’s Sonata in G minor brings telling use of vibrato as Isserlis circles around Egarr, his playing at once idiomatic and soulful. An extra cellist reinforces the bass line in the Handel and Scarlatti, in which the composers give the harpsichordist only a framework; Egarr’s imaginative realisations ensure that even when Scarlatti is at his most repetitive, he is never dull.
Resplendent in his powdered wig and 18th century garb, Maestro Handel (aka, Director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins) leads Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, a stellar cast of soloists - soprano, Suzie LeBlanc, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Rufus Muller, and baritone Locky Chung - and a mass audience choir made up of more than 1000 Tafelmusik fans as they perform Handel's baroque masterpiece. A Toronto tradition beloved by thousands, Tafelmusik's annual Sing-Along Messiah has become a revered family ritual for many over the past 25 years.
McGegan's recording is of considerable documentary interest in that a separate section at the conclusion of each of the three parts of Messiah - there are three discs accordingly - is reserved for the many alternative versions of arias, accompanied recitatives and choruses which Handel himself used or at least approved in performances during the 1740s and 1750s. In this way, the booklet explains, the listener can select which version of the work he/she wants to listen to at any given time. About six versions are possible from the 18 alternative tracks provided on the three CDs. By following a table printed in the back of the booklet (a few minutes' mental gymnastics are initially required) you can programme your CD player to replace particular arias with others.
Giustino is the Baroque version of a ‘ripping yarn’. The eponymous hero rises from ploughboy to emperor via an action-packed curriculum vitae that has him seeing visions, routing traitors, fighting bears and even slaying a sea-monster! Written in the autumn of 1736, shortly after Handel had suffered a period of ill-health, Giustino is not among his greatest operas, but it is thoroughly entertaining and offers much fine music. Particularly felicitous are Giustino’s bucolic aria ‘Può ben nascere tra li boschi’ and Anastasio’s lovely ‘O fiero e rio sospetto’. The headlong pace leaves Handel little time to develop the more sensual, amorous side of his music. One exception – and the opera’s most entrancing interlude – is the ravishing love duet in Act II, superbly sung here by Dorothea Röschmann (Arianna) and Dawn Kotoski (Anastasio). Michael Chance too is outstanding in the title role, proving that even countertenors can exude machismo. Nicholas McGegan coaxes a stylish performance from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Giustino is the fourth Handel opera he has now recorded following a staging at the Göttingen Festival and this is his most assured reading to date. Mention in the credits of a Bear Growl Advisor suggests a commendable attention to grizzly detail. (Graham Lock)
Agrippina (HWV 6) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel with a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Composed for the 1709–10 Venice Carnevale season, the opera tells the story of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, as she plots the downfall of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the installation of her son as emperor. Grimani's libretto, considered one of the best that Handel set, is an "anti-heroic satirical comedy", full of topical political allusions. Some analysts believe that it reflects Grimani's political and diplomatic rivalry with Pope Clement XI.