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George Frideric HANDEL: Parnasso in festa, serenata in 3 parts (HWV 73)

Lucy Crowe (Orfeo), Rebecca Outram (Calliope), Carolyn Sampson (Clio), soprano; Diana Moore (Apollo, Euterpe), mezzosoprano; Ruth Clegg (Clori), contralto; Peter Harvey (Marte), bass
Choir of The King's Consort, The King's Consort
Dir: Matthew Halls

rec: Feb 15 - 19 & March 24, 2008, London, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead
Hyperion - CDA67701/2 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.11'51")

On 14 March 1734 the wedding of Princess Anne and Prince William of Orange was to take place. For this occasion George Frideric Handel wrote an anthem, This is the day which the Lord hath made (HWV 262) and a serenade with the title Parnasso in festa. It was no coincidence that Handel played a prominent role in the festivities around the wedding, since Princess Anne was a great admirer of Handel's music and had become the composer's pupil.

The serenade was performed at the evening before the wedding day. It is one of the very rare occasions that Handel wrote a serenade, a genre which was particularly popular in Italy. Its main goal was to honour a royal or aristocratic person at the occasion of his birth or wedding or of an important political event. Often the characters in the serenade - mostly from the antiquity or classical mythology - are used as models for real personalities, like the bridal couple.

In this serenade the couple is Peleus and Thetis; their wedding is the main subject of the third part. A recitative of Apollo sums up what the serenade is about: "A pair for virtue so renowned, with valour, piety and goodness crowned; and of such origin divine will in fame's annals through all ages shine". In this serenade Peleus and Thetis are mentioned, but are not part of the story itself. The protagonists are Apollo and three of the Muses: Clio (muse of history), Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Euterpe (muse of music). They, Apollo's son Orpheus, Mars (the god of war) and the huntress Clori come together to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.

For this serenade Handel used music he already had composed, in particular for his oratorio Athalia. But much of this music was considerably reworked, and Handel added some new music as well. The performance was a great success. This isn't only proven by contemporary writings but can also be derived from the fact that Handel performed the piece several times in the next years, and that he used some music from the serenade in other compositions. In this light it may surprise that in modern times this work has hardly received the attention it deserves. In 2003 it was performed in the Netherlands, and I heard a recording on the radio which made a very good impression in regard to the quality of the music. This performance used an old edition by Chrysander, which - according to a 'note on the performance' in the booklet - in many respects differs from Handel's intentions. So here a new edition is used which is based on the manuscript Chrysander had at his disposal and several autograph fragments.

The quality of this serenade is well served by the performance, despite some reservations. The orchestra is playing with panache and full of spirit, and produces a strong and warm sound. The more intimate passages are just as well realised as the exuberant ones, where trumpets, horns and drums come in. The brass is impressive, but so are the transverse flutes in Clio's aria 'Nel spiegar' and the single flute in Orfeo's aria 'Spira al cen' celeste ardore'. The programme notes refer to the practice to perform the choruses with the ensemble of soloists and additional tenors and basses, which resulted in a choir of 3 voices per part. Here the choir is a bit bigger: 5/4/4/4. That as such is not a problem, as much as I had preferred the numbers Handel used. But I think the participation of the soloists in the choruses had been preferable, since that guarantees a stronger cohesion between the soli and the tutti.

Most soloists make a good impression. The star of the show is Carolyn Sampson, who sings very well and with great expression. In her capacity as Clio she has the longest aria to sing: 'Nel spiegar sua voce al canto' in the second part. It is a superb aria, and Ms Sampson sings it superbly, with great sensitivity and subtlety. The orchestra gives her excellent support. I am far less impressed by the performances of Diana Moore: she realises the role of Apollo well, but I don't like her consistent use of vibrato. It is not a very wide vibrato, but even so I find it annoying. At high speed, like in the aria 'Torni pure un' bel splendore' it is less of a problem. I also don't find her voice very attractive, but that is of course a very subjective matter. She sings two duets with Carolyn Sampson, and partly due to her vibrato their voices don't blend that well.

The other soloists have less to do. Lucy Crowe sings the role of Orfeo well; in particular her aria 'Ho perso il caro ben' is excellently done. Rebecca Outram also gives good performances, although I had liked a little more bite in her short aria 'Gią le furievedo ancor' - her low register is a bit too weak. Peter Harvey has a small role as Apollo, but sings it with the appropriate power and authority. Lastly the contralto Ruth Clegg, whom I would like to mention with honour. She has a very minor role to sing - just one aria and one recitative, but she has a very beautiful voice, and her singing is just what I like to hear. In the coloraturas of her aria 'Tra sentier di amene selve' she differentiates between the notes with dynamic accents - something I mostly miss in recordings and live performances. The way she does it is exactly how it should be done. Brilliant. I definitely like to hear more of her.

Despite some reservations I don't hesitate to recommend this recording. Parnasso in festa is a splendid work, which doesn't deserve to be neglected. Matthew Halls, his choir and orchestra and the soloists deserve our gratitude for presenting this serenade at such a high level of performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

The King's Consort

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