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Vocal reviews Joshua and Connolly are an ideal partnership in these Handel highlights
Handel excelled even his own high standards when writing duets for his operas and oratorios, and i t is little wonder that singers are tempted to collect together some of the finest for recitals. Most previous collections concentrated on one genre or the other but Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly mix things up: 10 of their 14 items are from operas in Italian but the other four are from English oratorios, although i t was not a good idea to place the two great sublime duets from Theodora in the wrong order; the dramatic characterisation and context of these duets seems to have been subservient to superficial musical beauties. The programming of famous operatic duets alongside less obvious choices from Ottone, Radamisto and Agrippina assists a nice variety of styles, dramatic moods and works.
Connolly and Joshua are as outstanding a pair of Handel singers as one is likely to hear. Both deploy a slightly wider vibrato than seems ideal for the emotional suspensions of the vocal parts and the straight string tone of the English Concert in "10 t'abbraccio", and the sorrowful and hopeless parting of Rodelinda and Bertarido fails to convey its full dramatic punch. Elsewhere the blend and connection between the two voices is immaculate, such as a tender performance of "Great victor, at your feet I bow"; the l ighter love duets, such as "Bramo haver mille vite" are delightfully judged. "Per Ie porte del tormento" is irresistibly gorgeous - and this is probably the loveliest interpretation of this duet on disc. "Caro! Bella!" is conspicuously more affectionate than one usually hears.
Concert and Harry Bicket provide understated and efficient accompaniment but
seldom reach deep into the dramatic personality of Handel's musical rhetoric.
The stylistic credentials of the enterprise are undermined by a few flaws:
recorders are omitted from "Vivo in te" (flutes alone do not achieve the colour
Handel proscribed in his score of Tamerlano); the inclusion of Baroque guitar in
"No, no, ch'io non apprezzo" is artistically needless and historically
implausible; I disliked the reduction of string scoring during most of "Thither
let our hearts aspire", which Bicket also stifles with over-egged bathos
(however, Joshua and Connolly's hushed cadenza is beautiful). Jonathan Keates
provides an expert yet friendly commentary on the music in his booklet-note, and
fans of both composer and these two singers will be enchanted by the highly
accomplished music-making. Also, Chandos might win a prize for wittiest
classical album cover of the year.