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'Parnasso in Festa' -
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'... some truly superb Handel singing (and playing) ...'

Handel: Parnasso in festa. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

On 14 March 1734 Princess Anne of England married Prince William of Orange. As Handel's favourite pupil and strongest supporter, Princess Anne received her own wedding present from Handel in the form of his serenata, Parnasso in festa, per li sponsali di Teti e Peleo. The court had attended the first performance of the serenata the previous evening, when it had been premièred at the Kings Theatre. Handel was in the middle of his tussle with the rival Opera of the Nobility and this royal support must have given him a much needed fillip, even though Princess Anne's marriage would inevitably take her away from London.

The cast for the serenata was identical to the one for Handel's most recent opera, Arianna in Creta. The role of Apollo in Parnasso in festa was sung by the castrato Carestini, for whom Handel had written the title role in Ariodante. Carestini specialised in elaborate instrumental-like passage work (in contrast to Handel's previous castrato Senesino). This is reflected in the writing of the role of Apollo which involves much elaborate passagework. The role of Clio was sung by Anna Strada del Po, for whom Handel had written the title role in Alcina. She was the only singer to have stayed with Handel when all his other stars left his company to work for the Opera of the Nobility.

The fact that Handel was working with a relatively new company meant that there was no possibility of Princess Anne's nuptial work being in English; Handel couldn't trust any of his new singers to sing in this language.

In fact much of the music for Parnasso in festa was originally written to be sung in English as Handel re-used a great deal of music from pre-existing works. Primary amongst these was Athalia which had been premièred in Oxford and had not yet received a London performance. It may be that Princess Anne had requested to hear some of the music from this piece.

Because of the amount of pre-existing material used in Parnasso in festa, it has often been dismissed as a mere pasticcio. In fact some of Handel's major works involved the re-use of earlier material. Both his operas Agrippina and Rinaldo used large amounts of earlier material: Handel simply stuck to his general rule that he did not re-use material already heard in the city of the performance in question.

In fact quite a lot of care was taken over Parnasso in festa. The anonymous libretto seems to have been entirely new and not based on a pre-existing one (this in itself is unusual). It seems to have been written so as to allow Handel to re-use as much material as possible. But Handel created nine brand new numbers, several items from Athalia are substantially re-worked and the Passacaglia from Rinaldo has new choral parts grafted on top. The result is to create a work which has a clear identity of its own; it doesn't sound like a patchwork assemblage.

This new recording from the Kings Consort under their new musical director Matthew Halls, is the first major recording of the piece. It is an attractive work, well worth the attention paid to it. It helps that Handel lavished a great deal of care on the orchestration, adding flutes, recorders, horns, trumpets and timpani to his standard orchestra. The King's Consort used a new edition of the piece which reconstructs the 1734 original and removes a number of confusions and obfuscations added by Chrysander in his edition.

Halls and the Kings Consort grab our attention from the outset with a crisp and lively account of the overture; this is a performance that makes you want to hear what comes next.

Listen -- Overture (Part 1)
(CD1 track 1, 0:04-1:04) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

There is little or no plot, simply Apollo, three muses and his son Orfeo engaged in musing and celebration. As may be gathered from the original casting, Apollo and the muse Clio are the two most important roles. Here they are sung by Diana Moore as Apollo and Carolyn Sampson as Clio. Another fine Handelian soprano, Lucy Crowe, sings Orfeo. Sampson has a brilliant, characterful voice which combines in a nice way with Handelian fioriture. She combines a finely focussed voice with good accuracy, shapely phrasing and moments of great beauty.

Moore has a warmer, darker voice with a distinctly feminine feel to it: you wouldn't mistake her for a man. But this hardly matters in the context of a piece like this which involves very little drama. She has a well-rounded voice with a distinct vibrato which is rather attractive though sometimes she develops a slight edge at the top. She has to sing a considerable amount of passage-work and this can sound a little laboured. But Handel's writing for Carestini can sometimes take on a showy brilliance which make it supremely tricky, and Moore is to be appreciated for her entirely creditable performance of the role.

Listen -- Lunga Serie (Part 3)
(CD 2 track 29, 0:16-1:31) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Lucy Crowe's Orfeo gets far fewer arias, as a large part of the piece involves the others trying to persuade Orfeo to sing. Crowe performs Orfeo's tragic arias with a fine sense of line and a voice of limpid beauty.

The other two women in the cast, Rebecca Outram as Calliope and Ruth Clegg as Clori, acquit themselves admirably and musically, and manage to sound distinct from the other upper voices. One of the good things about this disc is the way the six roles involving upper voices have been cast from a group of five fine Handelian singers who all manage to sound different from each other, rather then blending into one blur.

The only lower voice in the cast is Peter Harvey as Marte (Mars) whose main role seems to be to add a little contrast now and again. This Harvey does with fine stylish singing.

There are a number of memorable moments in the piece: Orfeo's moving accompagnato (the only one in the piece) is one.

Listen -- Dopo D'Aver Perduto (Part 2)
(CD 2 track 7, 0:37-0:53) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

The chorus Nel petto sento which opens Part 2 is another; here Handel accompanies the tragic march like piece with muffled drums.

Listen -- Nel petto sento (Part 2)
(CD 1 track 22, 3:05-4:05) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

And the chorus S'accenda pur, the one based on the Passcaglia from Rinaldo, makes a particularly strong effect. The net result of these choruses and the numbers which combine solo and choruses is to render the work slightly closer to French models than many of Handel's other works. Moments like the Passacaglia give off distinct whiffs of Lully.

The choruses would probably have been sung by the soloists plus a couple of extra singers to ensure balance. Here they are sung by a seventeen voice chorus with women sopranos and male altos. Their crisp account of the choruses gives welcome madrigalian feel to work.

This is a brilliant performance of a delightful piece. It is a joy to be able to report that the performance contains some truly superb Handel singing (and playing) and that the music itself is far from trivial. Inevitably, the performance has a distinctly English tinge to it; you won't mistake it for the more vibrant, Italianate style of performance which a number of continental groups bring to Handel's Italian opera.

For those of you that know Athalia, do try to get over your sense of déjà vu when Carolyn Sampson starts the work; her opening aria reuses Blooming virgins.

Listen -- Verginelle (Part I)
(CD1 track 2, 0:30-1:23) © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

But once past this moment, the work is full of delights in terms of both music and performance.

Copyright © 9 October 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


Handel: Parnasso in Festa

CDA67701/2 DDD Stereo NEW RELEASE (2 CDs) 72'25"/59'26" - TT 131'51" 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano (Apollo, Euterpe)
Carolyn Sampson, soprano (Clio)
Lucy Crowe, soprano (Orfeo)
Rebecca Outram, soprano (Calliope)
Ruth Clegg, alto (Clori)
Peter Harvey, bass (Marte)

The King's Consort
Choir of the King's Consort
Matthew Halls, conductor

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759):

Parnasso in Festa - The Festival on Parnassus for the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, HWV73 (1734) (first recording)

CD 1
Part 1
1 Overture
2 Aria: Verginelle (Clio)
3 Chorus: Corriamo pronte ad ubbidir
4 Recitative: Germane, figlio amato (All)
5 Aria and Chorus: Deh! cantate un bell'amor (Apollo)
6 Recitative: Ma prima che s'avanzi (Apollo)
7 Aria: Spira al sen' (Orfeo)
8 Aria: Gran Tonante (Apollo)
9 Chorus: Già vien da lui
10 Recitative: Spettacolo gradito (Clio)
11 Aria: Con un vezzo lusinghiero (Clio)
12 Recitative: Rimembranza gradita (Apollo)
13 Duet: Sin le grazie (Apollo, Clio)
14 Recitative: Ma di sì belle fiamme (Clio)
15 Aria: Quanto breve (Clio)
16 Recitative: Vada in oblio (Apollo)
17 Chorus: Cantiam a Bacco
18 Aria: Del nume (Marte)
19 Aria: Sciolga dunque (Apollo)
20 Chorus and solos: S'accenda pur
21 Chorus: Replicati al ballo

Part 2
22 Solos and chorus: Nel petto
23 Recitative: Qual tetra nube (Apollo)
24 Aria: Torni pure (Apollo)
25 Recitative: Ogn'un mi siegua (Clio)
26 Aria: Nel spiegar (Clio)

1 Recitative: E non s'udiran mai (Clori)
2 Chorus: O quanto bella gloria
3 Aria: Tra sentier (Clori)
4 Chorus: O quanto bella gloria
5 Recitative: Che mai facesti (Calliope)
6 Aria: Già le furie (Calliope)
7 Accompanied recitative: Dopo d'aver perduto (Orfeo)
8 Aria: Ho perso il caro ben' (Orfeo)
9 Chorus: S'unisce al tuo martir
10 Recitative: Figlio, diletto Orfeo (Apollo)
11 Duet: Cangia in gioia (Apollo, Clio)
12 Recitative: Di Nettuno seguaci (Apollo)
13 Chorus: Coralli e perle

Part 3
14 Sinfonia
15 Recitative: Io che degli avi eccelsi (Marte)
16 Chorus and solo: Si parli ancor (Marte)
17 Recitative: O stirpe (Orfeo)
18 Aria: Da sorgente (Orfeo)
19 Recitative: Dall'opre (Calliope)
20 Aria: Sempre aspira (Calliope)
21 Recitative: Delle dotte germane (Apollo)
22 Aria: Non tardate (Apollo)
23 Chorus: Accorriam senza dimora
24 Recitative: Sia degli eccelsi sposi (Clio)
25 Aria: Circondin lor' vite (Clio)
26 Recitative: Con un' spirito (Euterpe)
27 Aria: Han' mente eroica (Euterpe)
28 Recitative: Di virtù (Apollo)
29 Aria and chorus: Lunga serie (Apollo)


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