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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): The Triumph of Time and Truth, oratorio in 2 parts (HWV 71)

Gillian Fisher (Beauty), Emma Kirkby (Deceit), soprano; Charles Brett (Counsel, or Truth), alto; Ian Partridge (Pleasure), tenor; Stephen Varcoe (Time), baritone
The London Handel Choir and Orchestra
Dir: Denys Darlow

rec: Oct & Nov 1982
Hyperion - CDD22050 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2005) (2.03'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F

The history of Handel's oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth spans just fifty years. Handel composed the first version in Rome in 1707, on a libretto by Cardinal Pamfili. A reworked version was performed in 1737 in London. The title was changed from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno into Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità, and now contained a number of choruses, in line with the practice Handel had adopted in his English oratorios.

In 1757 Handel returned to the oratorio again. He asked Thomas Morell to translate the Italian libretto into versified English to fit the arias and choruses and to provide the necessary recitatives. In this third version Handel added new music, which was in fact old music. Since at that time he was hardly able to compose, due to his bad eyesight, he borrowed from earlier works. The next year he revised the oratorio once again, adding music which he adapted from his own works. "The present recording follows the 1757 version (thus without the extra arias of 1758), but omits two brief recitatives deleted in 1758 and two choruses ('Then shall I teach' and 'Comfort them, O Lord') which were taken without change from anthems and seem at odds with their new context", Watkins Shaw writes in the booklet.

Normally I am rather sceptical about recordings which present a mixture of several versions. From a historical perspective the recording of a version which was authorised by the composer has to be preferred. But I can understand the arguments for the decision taken here. Although the lyrics of the omitted choruses are not quoted, the first line of the second chorus suggests a religious content, which is rather out of line in this oratorio, which is not of a religious nature. The only reference to the Christian faith is in the last aria, where Beauty sings "Guardian angels, oh, protect me, (...) while resigned to Heaven above". And the oratorio closes with an "Alleluja" sung by the chorus. But otherwise this oratorio is of a more general moralistic nature rather than specifically Christian.

But appearances are deceptive. In fact this work is an allegory, in which the overall theme is the vanity of all earthly things. This is a deeply Christian thought, based on the book Ecclesiastes, where the words vanitas vanitatum (in the Vulgata, the Latin translation of the Bible) are repeated time and again. And vanity is one of the main motifs in European paintings of the renaissance and the baroque eras. The Triumph of Time and Truth is part of a long tradition of moral plays in Western history. In music one of the most famous examples is Emilio de' Cavalieri's sacred opera La Rappresentazione di Anima, e di Corpo. In this kind of plays the main character has to decide between good and evil, truth and deceit, worldly and heavenly or contemporary and eternal matters - in the end, between God and the devil.

Here the main character is Beauty. In the first act she admires herself in the mirror - which is depicted by the echo-effects in the orchestral introduction to her first aria, 'Faithful mirror, fair-reflecting' - and is assured by Pleasure that her youthful charms will never fade. Counsel (Truth), however, argues that youth will vanish with Time, and that she should follow Truth. Pleasure is supported by Deceit, Counsel by Time. In the second act the debate continues: Counsel and Time offer Beauty the mirror of Truth which shows things the way they really are. Whereas Deceit insists that life is only now and here, Counsel argues that without Truth all pleasures are vain. In the third act Beauty is gradually moving towards the other side of the argument, throwing away her old mirror and looking into the mirror of Truth. Pleasure, confronted with his defeat, seeks his own death: "Truth drives me to despair; open, ye rocks, and hide me there".

Although this recording dates from the early 1980s it is still very much worth listening to. All soloists are in fine form and generally well cast. The only exception is Stephen Varcoe, who seems to me a little too light-weight for the role of Time. I had preferred someone like David Thomas here. I have never been a strong admirer of Gillian Fisher's singing, but here she is admirable in her interpretation of the role of Beauty. Some highlights are her aria in the first act, 'Ever-flowing tides of pleasure', and the very moving 'Guardian angels, oh, protect me' at the end of the oratorio. Charles Brett is a singer whose voice I often find a little too weak, in particular in the lower register. Here it is only a problem in the duet with the chorus at the beginning of the first act, 'Time is supreme'. Otherwise he sings his role quite well. And he has some of the most beautiful arias to sing, like 'Mortals think that Time is sleeping' and 'On the valleys, dark and cheerless' (both in Act 2). Ian Partridge has a voice which doesn't appeal to me for its natural beauty, and his interpretation doesn't always grab me. But in his last aria, 'Like clouds, stormy winds then impelling', he gives a good impression of the despair of Pleasure who wants to die having lost the argument against Truth. Emma Kirkby has a rather small role, but sings it well, and shines in her only aria, 'Melancholy' (Act 2).

Both choir and orchestra give good performances. In some choruses the small solo parts are sung by members of the choir, and there is some lovely playing by members of the orchestra - who, unfortunately, are not mentioned - in the obbligato parts in several arias.

A search on the internet revealed that this is the only recording of this oratorio to date, which is rather surprising, considering its quality. That in itself is reason enough to recommend it. But fortunately this recommendation is supported by the level of the performance. It being reissued in Hyperion's budget series is a welcome bonus.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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