Handel: Arias & Suites from Alcina & Morgana

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: AVI
WORKS: Arias & Suites from Alcina & Morgana
PERFORMER: Christine Schäfer (soprano); Berlin Baroque Soloists/Rainer Kussmaul
CATALOGUE NO: 8553143

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Half-submerged in sea-water, hair drifting in the tidal wash, a menagerie of miniature lions, deer and reptiles clustered like charms around her neck, the sorceress gazes out from the picture. This is not just any Handel recital. This is Christine Schäfer’s Handel recital, with cover-art designed by its enigmatic star. 

Fans of the German soprano will know to expect the unexpected. Yet this concept album of arias and dances from Alcina is a true oddity: half concerto for voice and orchestra, half Mad Song.

Some dizziness is to be expected when a tale of enchantments and transformations is itself transformed. Instead of performing Alcina’s arias in the order they appear in the opera, Schäfer and violinist Bernhard Forck of the Berliner Barock Solisten have devised a programme that darts between Acts I, II and III, using the orchestral sinfonias, menuets and gavottes to ease the ear from key to key, before closing with Morgana’s plaintive siciliano with obbligato cello, ‘Credete al mio dolore’. 

The harmonic progression makes sense, but the narrative is compromised. Where Handel describes a powerful woman profoundly affected by specific events, Schäfer presents a glamour puss in the grip of a mood disorder.

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Performed at A = 441 (a discomforting nudge higher than standard modern concert pitch), Alcina’s otherworldliness is intensified, particularly in the ‘Entrée des songes funestes’. Despite the extreme altitude, Schäfer’s ashes of roses voice beguiles. Anna Picard