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Beauty and Pleasure, Time and Disillusion


WILFRID MELLERS examines Handel's oratorio
'Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità'

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Handel's startlingly adult boyhood comes to fruition in Part II, in a sequence of duets and a consummatory quartet between the four protagonists, in which the women shilly-shally, as do we all, being reluctant to admit that we live in a vale of tears that might, if we could let it, offer salvation. Perhaps only tears can redeem our 'mondo insano'; in any case Handel, young as he was, awards the palm, commonsensically rather than prissily, to Time and Disillusion, the climax coming in Pleasure's double aria, Lascia la Spina. This is first sung as an aria dangerously precarious and slightly frantic: only to be repeated in a slow setting to the tune of the famous sarabande from the opera Almira, originally written when the composer was a mere 19. In this new theatrical context the noble melody, supported by solemn wind instruments, is sublime enough to bear the gravity of the paradoxical human predicament, becoming an altar-dance which may be presumed to entail both sex and sanctity: though some may think that the very slow tempo Joachim Carlos Martini adopts with the Barock-orchester Frankfurt is slightly excessive, since it discourages the physicality of even a potentially holy sarabande. Still, the orchestral playing usually has the necessary equilibrium between majesty and vivacity: as becomes patent in Pleasure's consummatory aria, Come Nembo che fugge, which comes close to resolving the paradox of our existence since, having no need of Bach's death-haunted mysticism, it generates a potent tragic energy from its very ambiguity between life and death. Beauty's final aria, at last submitting to 'Heaven's Minister Elect', evades spiritual sanctions yet gets the best of both worlds in being grandly spacious, with plangent oboe obbligato to render incarnate human distress, while also being rationally measured ('Largo e staccato'), as the Young Composer plays the Wise Old Man.

This performance inserts, between this climacteric aria and the Final Chorus, an organ concerto (No 4 from opus 4, in F major): as had become Handel's custom by the time, thirty years after the oratorio's pristine Roman appearance, he made his 'definitive' revision in 1737. The insertion of an organ concerto had a symbolic appositeness, since the organ of Handel's day was a 'box of pipes' scientifically tuned by proud Man to create a god-like concordance. That Handel himself officiated as soloist at the organ affirmed his identity as Maker and Master, a human being with overtly god-like faculties. No wonder he recognised the worth and the centrality of this music of his shining youth; and even made a second revised version, to an English text, in the penultimate year of his life. Today, after a span of almost three hundred years, the young music still shines in glory undimmed.


Copyright © 19 May 2000 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK









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