ALBUM TITLE: Pepusch
WORKS: Venus and Adonis
PERFORMER: Ciara Hendrick, Philippa Hyde, Richard Edgar-Wilson; The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen/Robert Rawson
CATALOGUE NO: RAM 1502
The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentleman continues its exploration of music by Johann Christoph Pepusch with this, the first recording of his 1715 opera Venus and Adonis. It’s a gem. Director Robert Rawson, whose detailed scholarship informs the project, has assembled a troupe to match Pepusch’s celebrated Drury Lane singers and ‘select Band of the best Masters of Instrumental Musik’. From the overture’s first notes, Rawson’s musicians set a bucolic backdrop against which the two-act ‘full blooded opera seria in miniature’ unfolds.
The score has plenty of potential for drama and there are some particularly delightful arias – with some moments even giving the young Handel a run for his money. These are attractive performances from the three lead singers, particularly Ciara Hendrick, a passionate Venus – who sings with consistent assurance, notably in her dramatic rendition of the work’s climactic ‘Fury’ scene. Richard Edgar-Wilson is characterful in the low tenor part of Mars, and Philippa Hyde’s Adonis brings a palpable humanity to the proceedings, especially in the somnolent lilting of ‘Gentle Slumbers’.
This is the earliest English opera to have survived with a nearly complete set of original parts, and Pepusch gives the wind players gainful employment throughout. From horns to oboes, recorder and flute, each has a specific significance in symbolising affects and heightening emotion. Committed, if somewhat straightforward performances from the band left me yearning for a little more swing to the lines and refined whimsy, but fans of John Blow’s earlier Venus and Adonis will certainly welcome this enjoyable retelling of the tale.