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GRAMOPHONE (08/2014)
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Naïve V5373

Code-barres / Barcode : 0822186053737 (ID426)

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Reviewer: Richard Lawrence

What a wonderful opera this is. Tamerlano comes between Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda: not nearly as well known as either, it’s fully their equal. It opened at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on October 31, 1724; when it was revived in November 1731 Handel omitted the trio in Act 2 and added an aria for Leone. This recording follows the latter version but reinstates the trio. Crucially, it also adopts the cuts in the secco recitative that Handel made in 1731; it remains a long opera, with the secco recitative accounting for about a quarter of the whole. It is also a dark opera. The proud Ottoman sultan Bajazet shows nothing but contempt for his captor, Tamerlano (Timur, alias Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). After Bajazet’s death – offstage, but only just – there’s the bleakest ‘happy ending’ chorus imaginable, in which the heroine doesn’t join. The dramatic situation is striking – which is the hero, which the villain? – and the music superb.


The chief characteristic of this performance is the unbridled energy of the orchestra. Time and again, in fast music, the violins speed towards the end of a phrase like a bull charging a gate; further impetus comes from swelling on tied notes. Tamerlano’s first aria is marked by heavy accents, while the strings surge and stab away in Bajazet’s exciting ‘Ciel e terra’. It is immensely invigorating, but there are calmer episodes too: soft clarinets for Irene’s siciliano and gentle recorders for ‘Vivo in te’, a duet in the vein of ‘Io t’abbraccio’ in the following year’s Rodelinda.


John Mark Ainsley makes a heroic Bajazet, deeply moving in the broken phrases of his death scene; Andronico is tenderly sung by Max Emanuel Cencic; and Ruxandra Donose brings lovely warm tone to Irene. Why does she speak over the music in her arietta? Karina Gauvin is splendidly forthright as Asteria: no shrinking violet, she makes the singers for Trevor Pinnock and George Petrou sound bland in comparison. I find Xavier Sabata slightly too hooty for comfort but he too is well inside his part.


Petrou’s account of the 1724 version, recitatives and all, is still to be prized. There are good things in Pinnock’s live recording (1731, roughly, minus four arias). But newcomers should start with this throat-grabbing performance from Riccardo Minasi and Il Pomo d’Oro.

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