Nicholas McGegan has done more for the early music movement in America than nearly anyone else, and his tireless explorations of the byways of Baroque opera have put many fascinating works into the concert hall and onto recordings. He studied piano at London's Trinity College of Music and learned to play the flute while he was there, but entertained no special desire to study historical performance.
Serse has been one of my favorite Handel operas since I first heard the old Priestman LP on Westminster (Maureen Forrester in the title role, Lucia Popp as Romilda). Despite its frequent raggedness and "harpsichord on speed" continuo, this was a thoroughly dramatic and engaging performance. I've waited for decades for a new Serse which could benefit from the new performance standards we take for granted in baroque opera today. I was strongly disposed to like this disc, since although I've found McGegan a bit uneven in the past, his more recent Handel efforts, particularly Radamisto, have been superb. I can't fault the singers or orchestra in this performance, but the dramatic spark that makes Serse so special seems to me to be missing. I went back and compared my old Priestman recording and was even more convinced that the definitive Serse is yet to come. It's surprising there haven't been more recordings, since this work has a lot of potential appeal, and is one of Handel's most accomplished pieces. Maybe I'm just too picky, but I'd love to see someone reissue the Priestman on CD– and while they are at it, his equally engaging Rodelinda (fortunately, there is better competition for the latter).
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759): Italian Cantatas “Clori, Tirsi e Fileno” and “Apollo e Dafne”. Oboe Concerto in G Minor. Performed by various soloists and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Nicholas McGegan.
Samson, which is one of Handel’s last religious oratorios, is in three acts, and was first performed in London in February 1743. “For this work,” states Raphaël Legrand, “Handel borrowed much from others (namely, Telemann, T. Muffat, Legrenzi, Carissimi) and effectively transformed many motifs by Numinor de Giovanni Porta that he heard in London in 1720, which greatly inspired him. Propelled by the success of John Beard, whose great musicality surpassed his less than great voice, and impacting the future of the English oratorio, Handel innovated by attributing the lead role to a tenor (Italian operas privileged the voices of castrates and women).” The new production presented here, recorded in June 2006, is quite simply dazzling. Driven by Nicolas Mc Gegan’s conducting that is supple, profound and light all at once, it offers beauty at each instant, most notably in its highly homogeneous chorus, and in its two leads, Thomas Colley in the role of Samson and Sopie Daneman as Dalila, who deploy extraordinary emotion. The rest of the cast must also be commended for great balance in a fluid and serene musical discourse. This is quite an accomplishment in a wonderful sound recording.
"Greer is a highly accomplished player of the natural horn… I find Greer's playing very musicianly: unusually graceful in the phrasing of the quick movements, with gentle, thoughtful playing in K417 and some lovely smooth and clear lines in K495, while the slow movements are all beautifully done—the Romance of K447 refined and graceful, that of K495 often truly poetic with happy details of timing. And there is no shortage of wit in the finales, or of high spirits. Greer improvises his cadenzas: in the first movement of K495 he does, rightly I think, simply a longish flourish, with no reference to the themes of the movement." (Stanley Sadie, Gramophone Magazine)
Written in the summer of 1749, Theodora was premiered in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 16 March 1750. This work, which Handel considered his finest oratorio, was a failure at first - Handel said bitterly that the hall was so empty that "there was room enough to dance there." Part of this failure could be explained by the earthquake that hit London in February of the same year and caused the upper classes to flee the city, but another possibility is that the subject matter of the oratorio - the rebellion of a woman against the power of the state - was a bit ahead of its time.
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), one of the preeminent Baroque composers, was born in Germany, educated in Italy, and spent most of his career in England, making him one of the first genuinely cosmopolitan composers noted, for the elegance, sophistication, and tunefulness of his music. He established his reputation in London as a composer of Italian opera, but after public taste shifted in the 1730s, he turned to English oratorios, the most famous of which is Messiah. Other popular works include Water Music, Royal Fireworks Music, the operas Giulio Cesare and Serse, and the oratorios Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus.
Such stalwarts as Christopher Hogwood, Marc Minkowski, John Eliot Gardiner, and Nicholas McGegan tackled Handel's early oratorio La Resurrezione before Emmanuelle Haïm, but hers may well be the most passionate performance of the once-rare work yet recorded. Part of the reason is Haïm's own fiery nature. Nothing here is merely filler: every aria, recitative, and interlude is played for maximum musical and emotional value. Part of her success is due to Haïm's choice of soloists. While some listeners might wish soprano Camilla Tilling brought more strength to her part, she and the other four soloists bring plenty of intensity to their singing.