ALBUM TITLE: Handel
WORKS: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
PERFORMER: Natalie Dessay (soprano), Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano), Sonia Prina (alto), Pavol Breslik (tenor); Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
CATALOGUE NO: 363 4282
Handel was just 22 and already highly acclaimed when he wrote this ‘oratorio’ in Rome in 1707. Musically, it is virtually indistinguishable from opera, the genre banned in the holy city since 1681. Dramatically it is ittle more than an allegorical debat, Time warning the Pleasure-seeking Beauty of ultimate Disillusion. It was both Handel’s first oratorio and his last; in 1757, too blind to compose new music, he revised it, in English and with choruses.
Despite the rambling libretto by Cardinal Pamphili, one of his patrons, Handel’s imagination was fired as never before – and perhaps never after. The music is superb, from Disillusion’s ‘sleep’ aria (sung by Sonia Prina) with two gentle recorders, through a breath-taking aria di agilita by Pleasure (Ann Hallenberg), furious at being abandoned (if every note isn’t quite in place, the tempo is well worth the risk), to Time’s rhetorical vision (realised by Pavol Breslik) of the ghosts of past beauties. Beauty’s final aria (sung by Natalie Dessay) is unconventionally slow and intensely moving, accompanied by obbligato violin possibly intended for Corelli who may have led the first performance. He may, too have influenced the opening ‘Sonata’ – Handel’s first biographer claims the Overture was originally Lullian, at which Corelli complained: ‘My dear Saxon, this music is in the French style, which I don’t understand’. The two startlingly high violin ‘A’s in Handel’s second, Italianate, opening were perhaps his droll riposte.
Several glorious arias were recycled in later music, most notably Pleasure’s ‘Lascia la spina’ which became one of Handel’s most famous and popular arias – ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo. Here, Hallenberg’s unaffected simplicity and natural-sounding da capo decorations are riveting, as is the subtle theorbo continuo.
Another delightful instance of Handel’s dry wit occurs in an organ ‘sonata’ – played by Handel himself who is then described by Pleasure as ‘A light-hearted young man [arousing] perfect delight in alluring sounds’, to which Beauty adds that ‘His hands have wings’, having just stopped him in his tracks with an imperious ‘Taci’ – ‘Silence!’ Handel includes two quartets, one outstanding – four distinctive motifs woven into a thrilling ensemble, worthy of Mozart’s Figaro 80 years later. Here, it’s all the more astounding when Dessay throws an ‘F in alt’ into her da capo ornaments. Prina and Breslik create another delicious ensemble, gentle and thoughtful as they observe Beauty’s change of heart from her pursuit of Pleasure.
The first ever recording appeared in 1988 from Minkowski (Erato), well worth hearing if you happen upon it. Alessandrini’s exuberant but no longer available account of six years ago (Opus 111) led to some headstrong tempos. Haïm is generally more elegant, though no less exciting, while the (two-channel) sound is excellent. Technically superb, reassuringly stylish, this is an outstanding performance of Handel at the height of his powers.