A few days after last week’s show, wherein we heard a wonderful rendition of Georg Friederich Handel‘s Hercules, I discovered that Handel’s birthday is coming up on February 23rd (he would be 327 years old). As I do like to use birthdays and other such anniversary occasions as a musical programming device (something that I’ve done on The Galaxy for years), I am breaking a personal rule of thumb and playing some more Handel this week. Of course, its not like the recipient of such special favors is undeserving, as the two works that we have for tonight are more than deserving of special attention. Not only are they excellent performances of Handel’s great art, but they are also relatively recent recordings that feature a bevy of quality modern talent, something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.
We started the show with a wonderful recording of Handel’s 1718 opera Acis and Galatea. Composed while Handel was the house composer at Cannons in Middlesex to a libretto by John Gay, and using a story that he had used in a 1708 serenata, the work was revised and adapted by Handel on several occasions over the years. For a number of years it was his most popular dramatic work, and his only work for the stage that never left the general repertory (Mozart made an arrangement of the piece in 1788). While most performances use a modified arrangement, including some Handel arias that were not written for the piece, tonight’s recording uses “the Original Cannons Performing Version of 1718”.
The recording, a lovely package that offers an SACD layer as well as standard stereo, was a finalist in the Baroque Vocal category in the 2009 Gramophone Awards, and also won an Opus d’Or. It makes striking use of smaller vocal and instrumental ensembles, with the soloists also forming the choir (quite unusual these days), and features Susan Hamilton, Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs, Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Brook; the Dunedin Consort and Players was directed by John Butt. It should be noted that this is one of a series of striking performances of Baroque-era pieces by this ensemble. They have also made notable recordings of Messiah, and Bach’s Matthaus-Passion and B-minor Mass.
For our second opera, we heard his 1732 composition Ezio. Set to a libretto by Metastasio that had been used multiple times in the 10 years prior (and which would be used multiple times for the next 50 years, including two separate operas by Christoph Gluck; a title page from one of those later works can be seen at left), Ezio is notable for the complete absence of vocal ensembles, making it an excellent sample of opera seria.
Unlike tonight’s earlier opera, this opera was notably unsuccessful, and in fact may have been Handel’s worst earning opera, seeing only five performances before being shelved (it would not be resurrected until 1977). However, like tonight’s earlier opera, it comes to us through a lovely recent recording, part of a series of Handel recordings by Alan Curtis with Il Complesso Barocco. Also like the previous recording, it makes striking use of a smaller instrumental ensemble. The soloists were Ann Hallenberg, Karina Gauvin, Sonia Prina, Marianne Andersen, Anicio Giustiniani, and Vito Priante.