This 3CD set of George Frederic Handel's (1685-1759) "Belshazzar", from Archiv Production, a division of Universal Music, is proof again that transfer from vinyl to tape to disc brings with it improvements in listening that make the purchase a worthwhile addition to anyone's listening library. Written in 1744, "Belshazzar" is an oratorio in the operatic style that is wonderful oratorio, but lacking the true depth one expects to hear in an opera. London opera audiences of Handel's day agreed, as both "Belshazzar" and Handel's other offering of the period in the same style, "Hercules", were not terribly successful. Instead of the scheduled 24 performances only 16 were given and Handel never offered a full season of oratorio again. The Libretto by Charles Jennens (1700-1773) is, as the production notes say, meant "not only to show the fall of Babylon but to show it as a fulfillment of divine prediction and to confirm the biblical testimony by reference to classical history."
The emotional content, lyricism and direct appeal of Gavin Bryars’s music are unique, reflecting a contemporary composer’s absorption and transformation of several centuries of musical craftsmanship in order to reflect his, and our, own epoch. Originally written for harpsichord, After Handel’s Vesper is a strong illustration of Bryars’s post-minimal interests in early music repertoire. Ramble on Cortona, derived from 13th-century music, makes expressive use of the piano’s resonant qualities, while in the highly-coloured, almost impressionistic The Solway Canal, landscapes pass by as if in a dream.
Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr here assemble all the viola da gamba sonatas written by three composers born in the propitious year of 1685: one each by Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, and three by JS Bach. Isserlis plays them on the gamba’s modern cousin, the cello, and the microphone loves his playing, picking up all the nuances and scampering asides from his soft-spoken instrument which can sometimes get lost in big concert halls. Egarr on harpsichord matches Isserlis’s eloquence and rambunctious energy all the way. The dreamy, airy slow movement of Bach’s Sonata in G minor brings telling use of vibrato as Isserlis circles around Egarr, his playing at once idiomatic and soulful. An extra cellist reinforces the bass line in the Handel and Scarlatti, in which the composers give the harpsichordist only a framework; Egarr’s imaginative realisations ensure that even when Scarlatti is at his most repetitive, he is never dull.
This release sees Murray Perahia returning to Brahms after a significant series of excellent Bach recordings for Sony Classical. His 1991 Sony recording of the Sonata No.3 has an assortment of Intermezzos and Rhapsodies as a filler, but this new disc sees Perahia taking the later opus numbers head-on, working up to them chronologically via the Handel Variations and Rhapsodies Op.79 which, as Katrin Eich says in her booklet notes, each represent an ‘end point’ at certain stages in Brahms’ compositional output.
The impressive discography of Handel operas and oratorios from Nicholas McGegan continues with this recording of Radamisto, made following staged performances of the opera at the 1993 Göttingen Handel Festival. Generally speaking, McGegan has derived better results in those sets using the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (as here) than in those made with his Californian forces. The German players sustain his brisk tempi with relative ease, though McGegan’s penchant for spiky staccato and short, snatched phrases rather than long lines does not always do the music full justice. The stars are the countertenor Ralf Popken in the title role and Juliana Gondek as his long-suffering wife, Zenobia. Popken has the technique to get round the heroics of ‘Perfido’ with ease, yet delivers the expressive slow numbers, such as ‘Cara sposa’, with exquisite eloquence. Gondek is equally versatile: formidable in her rage arias, touching in the griefstricken ‘Quando mai’. (Barry Millington)
In their original incarnation on LP, the sound of Trevor Pinnock and his English Consort's 1981 recording of Vivaldi's famous Four Seasons was clear and bright. In subsequent CD iterations, it was clearer and brighter. But in this 2008 Japanese original bit processing issue, it has passed clearest and brightest and gone all the way to transparent and translucent. One can hear each of the 13 string players bows strike their strings and every pluck of Nigel North's theobro or Pinnock's harpsichord. And soloist Simon Standage sounds so vibrant and present that he may as well be in the room standing between the speakers.
This Decca Classics release is the first ever complete recording of Arminio, with only one previous incomplete performance available. Described by one contemporary commentator as a miracle, and another as in every respect excellent & vastly pleasing, Arminio is ripe for reappraisal and new presentation.