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.
Handel's Giove in Argo (Jupiter in Argos) is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, a pastiche (or, in the parlance of the time, pasticcio) of numbers from earlier operas stitched together into a mythological-pastoral plot that is absurd even by the standards of Baroque opera. It is a notable sign of the success of the Baroque opera revival that this has appeared on a semi-major label, Virgin Classics. The pieces were all from operas that were fairly recent at the time, and it's possible that the work was intended as a kind of greatest-hits reprise, but London audiences did not bite; the opera was long thought to be lost, and it had its modern premiere only in 2006, with newly written recitatives.
The athletic Italian- (and Latin-) language arias of the young Handel, almost unknown to general audiences a few decades ago, have become almost a rite of passage for young sopranos, so it's no surprise to see the highly praised soprano Julia Lezhneva come along with a collection of them for her second solo album. It's an attractive set showing that Lezhneva knows how to play to her strengths. There are just enough of the big showpieces to prove that she can acquit herself fine in them (and indeed she has done the likes of Vivaldi very well in the past), but the majority of the program is devoted to displaying her rather uncanny silvery sound.
Richter actually made a full set of recordings for Handel's Concerti Grossi. The Munich Bach Orchestra, who almost played exclusively for Richter, maintained its essential baroque flur throughout all the pieces, under the impeccable conducting of Richter. The different string sections played as if they were in a chorus, each minute part played in fully melodious and engaging manner, while the ensemble as a whole displayed all the required congeniality and harmoniousness essential of the baroque style. The rhythms are enlivened while contrasts striking, and you will seldom find Handel's works played in such grand style as did Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra here. (Amazon.com)
While it isn't Handel's most obscure opera (hum a few bars from Catone, anyone?), Siroe, Re di Persia is definitely on the margins. It's hard to say why exactly, although the unflatteringly edited Metastasio libretto (by Nicola Haym) is surely part of the reason; the character and conflict development of the original are largely missing from the version Handel set. But the music is Handel at his best, and let's face it: from the perspective of a modern listener, plot is not the main draw of opera seria. With that in mind, Harmonia Mundi's complete recording, with Andreas Spering and the Cappella Coloniensis, is an excellent first step toward giving Siroe wider exposure. It's well played, thoughtfully conducted, and it features an excellent trio of leading ladies.