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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Arias for bass

[I] "Oratorio Arias"
Adam Plachetka, baritone; Katerina Kneziková, sopranoa
Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Roman Válek
rec: August 31 - Sept 2, 2012, Trebic, Basilica of St. Prokop
Supraphon - SU 4116-2 (© 2012) (70'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Cz; lyrics - translations: Cz
Cover & track-list

Acis and Galatea (HWV 49) (overture; I rage, I melt, I burn! - O ruddier than the cherry, rec acc & aria; Whither, Fairest art thou runningb - Cease to beauty, rec & aria); Alexander's Feast (HWV 75) (overture; Revenge, Timotheus cries, aria); Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63) (overture; O Father, whose Almighty power, chorus; I feel the Deity within - Arm ye brave - We come, in bright array, rec, aria & chorus; Be comforted - The Lord worketh wonders, rec & aria; Fallen is the foe, chorus; Enough! to Heaven we leave - With pious hearts, rec & aria; Sing unto God, chorus; Rejoice, O Judah, aria; Alleluia, chorus); Messiah (HWV 56) (Thus saith the Lord of hosts - But who may abide, rec acc & aria; Behold, I tell you a mystery - The trumpet shall sound, rec acc & aria)

[II] "Handel's finest arias for base voice"
Christopher Purves, bass
Dir: Jonathan Cohen
rec: Jan 19/20/23-24, 2012, London, All Hallows, Gospel Oak
Hyperion - CDA67842 (© 2012) (70'54")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (HWV 72) (Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori, aria); Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a) (I rage, I melt, I burn! - O ruddier than the cherry, rec acc & aria); Agrippina (HWV 6) (Vieni, o cara, aria); Alexander's Feast (HWV 75) (Revenge, Thimotheus cries, aria); Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122) (Mie piante correte - Cara pianta, arias); Belshazzar (HWV 61) (To pow'r immortal my first thanks are due, aria); Deborah (HWV 51) (Tears, such as tender fathers shed, aria); L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (HWV 55) (If I give thee honour due - Mirth, admit me of thy crew, rec & aria); La Resurrezione (HWV 47) (Qual'insolita luce - Caddi, č ver, rec acc & aria); Muzio Scevola (HWV 13) (Volate piů dei venti, aria); Orlando (HWV 31) (Impari ognun da orlando - Sorge infausta una procella, rec acc & aria); Riccardo Primo (HWV 23) (Nel mondo e nell'abisso, aria); Rinaldo (HWV 7a) (Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto, aria); Semele (HWV 58) (Leave me, loathsome light, aria); Theodora (HWV 68) (Racks, gibbets, sword and fire, aria)

Audiences in the baroque era were fascinated by high voices, at least in Italy and in those regions across the Alps which were under the influence of the Italian style. The major roles in operas were scored for sopranos and altos, and were often sung by castratos. Minor characters were sometimes allocated to tenors. Bass roles usually represented either elderly men or rude and repulsive characters. The situation wasn't very different in chamber cantatas: most of these were scored for soprano, fewer for alto, whereas cantatas for tenor or bass are very rare.

Composers sometimes wrote music for a low voice when they had a particular singer in mind. That was the case, for instance, when Handel composed his cantatas for bass. In his liner-notes to the Hyperion disc David Vickers also mentions a couple of singers who played a major role in Handel's dramatic works.

These two discs both feature the music which Handel composed for this type of voice. However, despite the fact that there are a couple of overlaps in the programmes, they are quite different. Christopher Purves is a seasoned Handelian who has appeared in many productions of operas and oratorios, whereas Adam Plachetka is still in the early stages of his career. He is from Prague whereas Purves is British. That has some relevance as Plachetka's pronunciation is certainly not perfect. From that perspective it had been preferable if he had chosen arias from Handel's operas which are all in Italian. Another difference is that Purves covers the whole spectrum of Handel's dramatic output, whereas Plachetka focuses on arias from just four works. In addition to the arias we also get the overture of every composition and some choruses. That is praiseworthy as it prevents this disc being a one-man show. These are also the most satisfying parts of his disc. The Czech Ensemble Baroque is a fine ensemble and its choir is excellent. I would like to hear it in one of Handel's oratorios.

Plachetka's disc is also a mixture of the very familiar - Messiah, Acis and Galatea - and less familiar. Judas Maccabaeus and Alexander's Feast are certainly no unknown quantities, but they are not that often performed, in comparison with other vocal works. Therefore one could consider this disc as a mixture of presenting lesser known works by Handel and a portrait of a young and arising artist. The ultimate result is not that convincing. I have tried to like Plachetka's voice, but I couldn't. I find it rather harsh and edgy. I would have liked some soft spots in his voice but couldn't find them. He is labelled a baritone, but his lower register seems stronger than the upper part of his tessitura, as in particular 'The trumpet shall sound' from Messiah shows. The high notes sound a bit strained, and a strong wobble creeps in. There is too much vibrato in his singing anyway, but that is especially the case in the higher part of his tessitura. There is too little differentation between arias and within arias, for instance between the A and B part of 'But who may abide' from Messiah. The arias from Acis and Galatea are relatively well done, but in the recitatives Plachetka is not very responsive to the texts. The rhythm is too strict and his singing is not very speech-like.

The arias from Acis and Galatea and Alexander's Feast allow for a direct comparison, and here Christopher Purves is more convincing. Although a bass his voice is stronger and more flexible in all registers and he explores the texts more than Plachetka. 'Revenge, Timotheus cries' from Alexander's Feast shows the difference quite clearly, with Purves delivering a more differentiated interpretation. 'Racks, gibbets, sword and fire' from Theodora is one of the highlights. The arias from Muzio Scevola and Riccardo Primo are also very well done. That said, this disc isn't an unequivocal success. 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori' from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is technically impressive - the aria includes a number of wide leaps - but not that expressive. 'Caddi, č ver' from La Resurrezione is curiously restrained. I often have problems with Purves' vibrato. In 'Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto' from Rinaldo that is as wide as the coloraturas; it is hardly possible to hear the difference. Lastly, I have heard more lively and more theatrical playing than from Arcangelo. In some arias it is quite good, but in other instances I found it a bit dull.

The lyrics in the booklet of Plachetka's disc are riddled with errors: lines are omitted or completely messed up. The liner-notes are concise, but the Handel lover won't read anything he didn't know already. As is to be expected, the Hyperion disc comes with excellent notes, written by Handel scholar David Vickers who explains the character of the selected arias in such a way that one gets a better insight into Handel's oeuvre and the way he treated the voice.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Adam Plachetka
Christopher Purves
Czech Ensemble Baroque

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