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GRAMOPHONE (08/2012)
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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

Curnyn’s EOC restores rare Handel incidental music

Covent Garden director John Rich evidently overreached himself when, in 1749, he planned Alceste — play by Tobias Smollett, modelled on Euripides, incidental music by Handel — as a multimedia extravaganza, with separate casts of singers and actors, and lavish scenery by Giovanni Servandoni. Soon after rehearsals began the project was aborted, probably because Rich had taken fright at the mounting costs, though Smollett’s famously short temper may have played its part. Never one to waste a good tune, Handel recycled most of the numbers the following year in the allegorical ode The Choice of Hercules. While this gets an occasional airing, the original Alceste music is a serious Handelian rarity: I can trace just two previous recordings, including a fine one from Christopher Hogwood (L’Oiseau Lyre, 12/98), both of which have slipped out of the catalogue.

The arias and choruses for assorted gods, muses, sirens and shades, plus instrumental numbers (among them an impressive, Gallic style Passacaille filched from the opera Radamisto), are in Handel’s most beguiling vein, sometimes with a distinct whiff of Purcell: say, in the voluptuously melancholy chorus ‘Thrice happy who in life excel’, and the tenor aria ‘Tune your harps’. Other highlights include the chic gavotte for soprano and chorus ‘Still caressing’ — first cousin to Semele’s ‘Endless pleasure’ — and the muse Calliope’s lulling ‘Gentle Morpheus’, exquisitely scored for four- part strings.

On this new recording Christian Curnyn and his trim period band give full value to the music’s sensuous charm, phrasing alluringly in the slower numbers and keeping the rhythms lithe and springy. Bass-lines are always vitally shaped. The 12-strong chorus sings with youthful freshness and the three soloists are ideally chosen. Andrew-Foster Williams is incisive without bluster in Charon’s balefully cheerful ‘Ye fleeting shades’. Benjamin Hulett is both mellifluous and athletic in his three arias, while Lucy Crowe displays her nimble coloratura technique in tee frolicking ‘Come fancy’, and brings a limpid purity of line in ‘Gentle Morpheus’. First-rate Chandos sound and presentation, with a stimulating essay from David Vickers, complete an hour of hedonistic Handelian delight.

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