Handel’s Unsung Heroes – Selections from Rinaldo, Agrippina, Rodrgio etc
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Gould (violin), Joe Qiu (bassoon), Leo Duarte (oboe); La Nuova Musica/David Bates
Pentatone PTC 5186 892 71:16 min
This is a stunning collection of Handel opera numbers. For originality, risk-taking, and erudition, it towers above its predecessors. It also benefits from its mix of soloists: having chosen the music for its expressive license, David Bates brings together world-class vocal and instrumental virtuosos to perform it.
The programme was inspired by Handel’s innovative opera scoring, the titular ‘Unsung Heroes’ being the many unknown instrumentalists for whom Handel crafted solos. Here Bates taps Joe Qiu (bassoon), Paul Sharp (trumpet), Leo Duarte (oboe) and Thomas Gould (violin) to join his band La Nuova Musica alongside vocal superstars Christine Rice, Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe. Bates includes an unusual number of instrumental movements from Handel operas alongside the vocal numbers, supplies his own embellishments and, when conducting, gives the performers ample space to use Handel’s inventions as a launchpad for their own.
Those apt to hum along to Handel tunes may be in for a surprise. Consider ‘Scherza infida’ from Ariodante: sometimes less than nine minutes, Bates and his performers stretch it out to 11 and a half. It is one of Handel’s master strokes that this aria’s melody tries but fails to ascend; drawing out his sustained descending pitches, bassoonist Qiu encroaches on and at points subtly eclipses Rice, deepening the depressed mood. This heightens Handel’s classic deployment of a voice-like instrument whose timbre, colours and register generate their own affect, leaving Rice to wander into craziness through lugubrious embellishments. The band halts its ever-decelerating chords before the final cadence, cratering the music in despairing silence.
Every number reaches this level of intensity, aided by the way in which tracks are grouped. In their cheeky duet ‘Or la tromba’ (Rinaldo), countertenor Davies and trumpeter Sharp jostle to show who can alter the same motif more extravagantly. This is set up by the three tracks which precede it: a terse French overture, from Teseo, is followed by the ‘Marcia’ and ‘Battaglia’ from Rinaldowhich both, uniquely in Handel’s operas, feature four trumpets.
Crowe’s performances are just as carefully set up, and perhaps even more impressive. Bates leaves ‘V’adoro pupille’, Cleopatra’s hit aria from Guilio Cesare, embedded in its sinfonias and exclamations from the besotted Cesare (Davies). This maintains the music’s dramatic thrust as Crowe leaves her earthbound interlocutor to soar effortlessly to a top G, around which she weaves a gossamer web to conclude pianissimo on a shimmering top B-natural. This all makes Cesare’s following aria, the panting ‘Se in fiorito ameno prato’ – with Gould’s solo violin passages echoing Davies in his own manner – seem a natural reaction to Crowe’s sensuality. The recording’s final track, ‘Se giunge un dispetto’ (Agrippina) is a coup de théâtre by Crowe and oboist Duarte, who speed up runs and extend added leaps beyond what I thought humanly possible.
This project is a heroic achievement for all involved.