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GRAMOPHONE (October / 2017)
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Erato 9029581170

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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

You could be forgiven if you failed to recognise the overture to Handel’s Alcina behind the jazz piano breaks, plucked bass and klezmer clarinet of this disc’s opening track, though you might guess even before a violin skitters through that Baroque music is in there somewhere, and it wouldn’t take much longer after that to realise that Handel is its subject.

The latest project from baroque experimentalists L’Arpeggiata tackles a composer perhaps less obviously suited to the group’s brand of improvisatory reimagining than their 2014 Purcell disc (5/14); but if Handel’s music does have a more consistently ‘high art’ air to it, Christina Pluhar and her band of baroque and jazz musicians have found a viable way of working with it. And as with their Purcell, for all the new ideas they explore, it is the composer’s expressive melodic genius that is at the heart of everything.

For one thing, noble outpourings of vocal expression such as ‘Cara sposa’, ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ lose nothing of their emotive power when performed here by soprano Nuria Rial, countertenor Valer Sabadus or indeed cornettist Doron David Sherwin. They deliver them pretty much as Handel wrote them, too, though the accompaniments might feature jazz bass or Middle Eastern percussion, or the song might be embedded in freer improvisations from Gianluisi Trovesi on clarinet and Francesco Turrisi on piano. (Some nice jokes here by the way: tinkly toy piano for Semele’s ‘O sleep, why does thou leave me’, a walking bass for ‘Where’er you walk’.) It is interesting to see that it is mostly Handel’s slow arias that have lent themselves to this treatment, for the most part provoking jazz that is sympathetically cool and gentle; for more energy L’Arpeggiata look to purely instrumental improvisations on the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, a Vivaldi chaconne and a Kapsberger Canario. Whether or not you like this kind of project, this one is expertly and beautifully done, with Handel’s lyrical greatness remaining plain for all to see.

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