Solo Arias, Duets, Overtures and Sinfonias from Serse, Rinaldo, Jephtha, Solomon, Ariodante, Rodelinda, Alcina and Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Barnaby Smith (countertenor), Mary Bevan, Catriona McDermid (soprano), Bojan Čičić (violin); The Illyria Consort/Gavin Edwards
Voces8 Records VCM136 63:03 mins
For his debut solo album, countertenor Barnaby Smith, director of the choir VOCES8, sings favourite Handel arias. Smith tells us that the pandemic lockdown gave him the chance to fulfil a longstanding ambition to probe Handel’s operatic voice with his own.
Smith’s instrument is sweet, intense and bursting with colours, qualities which peak in the lyricism of ‘Ombra mai fù’ (Serse), ‘Cara sposa’ (Rinaldo), ‘Scherza infida’ (Ariodante) and ‘Verdi prati’ (Alcina). He exploits the music’s lines to bold effect, adding shockingly high vaults in repeat sections. Smith’s shapely phrases, like his blistering speed and crisp passagi in ‘Venti turbini’ (Rinaldo), are indebted to muscle and musicianship alike. Handel star Mary Bevan joins Smith for three duets; as ever, her poise and power, even at stratospheric heights, are a feast for the ears. Topping off Smith’s and Bevan’s dazzling singing is the playing of The Illyria Consort, whose elegance is particularly evident in obbligato parts and the recording’s two instrumental tracks.
Sadly, the bouncy acoustic of the church of St Anne and St Agnes – home to the VOCES8 Foundation – undercuts this recording. Silence, often the portal to Handel’s most emotive moments, is absent. The sexy warmth of Handel’s love arias is lost, as is his creamy blend of vocal and instrumental textures. Singers’ exclamatory top notes eclipse subtler passages, which themselves are few. The acoustic clatter also seems to undercut the singers’ ability to hear and spontaneously react to the band. So, while the music-making itself is gorgeous, the musical drama of each number can be hard to catch.