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GRAMOPHONE (01/2023)
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Reviewer :
Lindsay Kemp

There is no shortage of Handel aria albums around, but not all take as much care in the planning as this one. Nor do many mine Handel’s English oratorios rather than his Italian operas. It’s perhaps a less glamorous path – generally less concerned with vocal display, and often worthily biblical – but pays dividends in terms of the emotional directness and authenticity that come to great artists in their maturity, which is where Handel was here. According to the publicity material (though not the booklet), Thomas Dunford and Lea Desandre – highly commended by Mark Seow for their ‘Amazone’ album last year (A/21) – spent lockdown searching through Handel’s English-language output to create not just a running order but a narrative, seemingly centred on a romantic love threatened by external pressures yet promising its rewards in heaven. Dunford calls it ‘a baroque West Side Story’.

The beauty of it is that this rich selection of arias and duets encompasses glorious old friends such ‘As with rosy steps the morn’, ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ and ‘Will the sun forget to streak’ alongside lesser-known gems that might never have been chosen in another, less directed context. Here they burn intensely, the heartbreakingly intimate duets for the likes of Theodora and Didymus, Esther and Ahasuerus or Ino and Athamas (Semele) especially, but also the bright and bold arias from unwonted sources such as The Occasional Oratorio, The Choice of Hercules or Susanna.

The performances are not entirely conventional either. Jupiter are a one-toa-part ensemble, which takes away some lustre but also makes for greater detail and closeness, as well as an interestingly grainy, sometimes gritty environment for the singers to inhabit. Iestyn Davies is of course a Handel interpreter of distinction, and delivers exactly what you would expect of him. Desandre has done less operahouse Handel, however, and while sturdiness and agility are there – she soars, ducks and dives like a kite in her aria from Joseph and his Brethren, and Semele’s ‘No, no, I’ll take no less’ is an absolute belter – the more flexible orchestral sound world is an excellent fit for her skills in vocal colour and text (notice how she plays with the rhythm while wording the trumpet part in the Purcellian ‘Eternal source’).The philosophising booklet note goes to a lot of trouble to tell us not to get overintellectual about things, but just to let the music work its magic. It manages this with ease, even in the little bit of surprise nonHandel at the end. This is an album that reaches deep into Handel’s genius – looks like there’s life in the format yet.



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