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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): The Triumph of Time and Truth (HWV 71)

Mary Bevan (Deceit), Sophie Bevan (Beauty), soprano; Tim Mead (Counsel, Truth), alto; Ed Lyon (Pleasure), tenor; William Berger (Time), bass
Ludus Baroque
Dir: Richard Neville-Towle

rec: August 3 - 7, 2013, Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk
Delphian - DCD34135 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.34'43")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Considering the popularity of Handel's vocal works it is rather surprising that to date only two commercial recordings of The Triumph of Time and Truth are available. In 1982 the late Denis Darlow recorded a performance with some of the best baroque singers of the time, including Gillian Fisher, Emma Kirkby and Ian Partridge. It was reissued in 2005. The present recording is only the second in the catalogue. It is probably due to the rather negative assessment by some Handel scholars, such as Winton Dean - quoted by Peter Small in his liner-notes to the present recording - that performers have generally ignored this work. Another reason could be that Handel's own contribution to its creation is rather small, especially because at the time this work was put together he was blind and was hardly active as a composer any more.

The Triumph of Time and Truth is an arrangement of the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno which Handel had written in 1707 during his stay in Italy. The text was from the pen of Cardinal Pamphili. In 1737 Handel had already reworked it for a performance in England. He changed its title into Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità and added a number of choruses, in line with his practice in oratorios. In 1757 Thomas Morell, Handel's librettist for many years, created an English versification of the Italian libretto. Again some new music was added, although not composed for this version but rather taken from existing compositions. Some of these additions have met criticism as they are explicitly Christian whereas the original libretto has hardly any Christian connotations. However, that is not really true. This work is an allegory and fits into a long tradition of morality plays in which one character has to choose the right path in life. He is confronted with opposing characters: some try to convince him to opt for the pleasant things in life, others point out that these pleasures are temporary and will fade away with time. He should rather follow the path of virtue. The fact that a Cardinal wrote the original libretto already suggests the religious intention of the work. Its tenor is that the things of this earth are in the end nothing but vanity. This subject returns time and again in literature and paintings of the baroque era. It is rooted in the biblical book Ecclesiastes which opens with the words "vanity of vanities, all is vanity". It returns as a refrain many times in the next chapters.

Darlow decided to remove the explicitly Christian elements; here they have been preserved. In his review of this recording (The Gramophone) David Vickers notifies the reader that what we get here is the complete version which was performed in the 1758 revival in which the role of Deceit was extended. In this respect the present recording is a real alternative to the Darlow recording. Those who have the latter recording in their collection will be able to compare them and decide for themselves which version is musically most satisfying. It would have been nice if this new recording would also be an alternative as the performance is concerned. That is not the case, I'm afraid. Although this is not an opera it should be more dramatic than it is here. The various protagonists fight for the soul of Beauty, as the main character is called. However, there is very little interaction between them. Maybe a live performance would have resulted in a livelier exchange between the characters.

This recording shows some of the weaknesses of many performances of 18th-century vocal music: the recitatives are generally slowish and rhythmically too strict. That contributes to its rather static character. There is too little difference between the voices of Sophie and Mary Bevan; both could have treated the text more differently. I am not very enthusiastic about the voices of Ed Lyon and William Berger, but that is obviously a matter of taste. Problematic is especially their incessant vibrato; the two sopranos also use it too much. Tim Mead makes the strongest impression; he has some fine arias to sing, and he does so very well. The choruses are generally good, and the orchestra plays well. However, the balance between the two is less than satusfying as the orchestra is too much in the background.

In regard to the version presented here this production is certainly interesting, and Handelians should not hesitate to add it to their collection. From a musical angle I strongly prefer the Darlow version which has stood time surprisingly well.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

William Berger
Ed Lyon
Tim Mead
Ludus Baroque

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