Handel Tamerlano Pinnock Avie AV0001

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2002 and the recording is still available.

Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Monica Bacelli, contralto (Tamerlano)
Tom Randle, tenor (Bajazet)
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, soprano (Asteria)
Graham Pushee, alto (Andronico)
Ann Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano (Irene)
Antonio Abete, bass (Leone)
The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
rec. live, 27-30 June 2001, Sadler’s Wells, London
Avie AV0001 [3 CDs: 181]

For the first release on the new Avie label, we are graced with a live recording of Trevor Pinnock’s version of Handel’s Tamerlano, recorded in June 2001. At the same time, a recording of a performance of this work was made at the Handel festival in Halle, Germany, and is released on DVD with the same cast and performers.

Handel composed Tamerlano in three weeks in July 1724. Coming on the heels of Giulio Cesare, and just before Rodelinda, this was part of Handel’s most fecund period of opera compositions. Telling the tale of the Tamerlane, emperor of the Tatars, and his love for Asteria, the daughter of the Turkish sultan Bajazet who he has taken prisoner. The context of the story was well-known to the 18th century theatre-going public, since a play entitle ‘Tamerlane’, by William Rowe, was performed every year in London on 4 and 5 November. Tamerlano premiered on 31 October, and this was certainly not a chance date.

Handel revived Tamerlano once in 1731, making several major changes – he added one aria, but especially cut a great deal of the recitatives, which are already the most extensive in all of Handel’s operas. This recording uses the 1731 score.

As with all live recordings, there are pros and cons. The sound is never as good with live performances as with studio recordings, and, on this CD, the sound is dense and somewhat muted. The singers are not always miked very well, and, when listening on headphones, this is especially distracting. Nevertheless, the instruments are clear and present; even the harpsichord can be heard well. Applause is heard several times, such as after Andronico’s moving aria ‘Bella Asteria’ in the first act, giving a feeling that the listener is truly there. At least this is not one of those live recordings made to sound like a studio recording …

There is a general issue that seems to pervade this recording, except for bass Antonio Abete (and his role is very limited, singing but one aria, and participating in a few recitatives), none of the soloists are primarily baroque specialists. This means that the baroque idiom and performance practice is lacking in the singing; the most obvious result is an overuse of vibrato by most of the singers.

It seems strange to choose a female contralto to play the lead role of Tamerlano. With so many capable counter-tenors available, this stands out somewhat – I cannot help but think that David Daniels would be perfect in this role. (The role was originally written for alto castrato Andrea Pacini). Bacelli uses a great deal of vibrato, but has a very attractive and “meaty” voice, which does indeed sound almost masculine.

Almost one third of this work is recitative, including several long sections that are four, five and seven minutes long. This can be annoying to some listening to the recording though this is not a problem with the DVD, where you can see what is going on and follow the story more easily with subtitles.

Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz is brilliant as Asteria, with a full, rich voice that resounds and moves (though she, too, uses a lot of vibrato). Her long aria in the first act, Deh, lasciatemi il nemico, is a masterpiece, and the balance between the orchestra and her voice is exemplary.

Another strong aria is the final section of act 2, Cor di padre, sung by Asteria. This tense song, with brutally powerful rhythm pervading it, is one of the longest in the work, and contains a great deal of emotion and pain. Norberg-Schulz performs this very well, but it is the orchestra who stars in this aria, with its strong, almost violent rhythm and energetic strings.

Alto Graham Pushee is very good, and has several occasions to stand out in this work. One of the finest is the long aria Benchè mi sprezzi at the end of act 1. This slow, subtle song of sorrow may be a bit lacking in emotion – the sorrow does not come through enough – but musically his singing is impeccable.

Tenor, Tom Randle has a wonderful voice, colourful and intriguing, and is closer to a baritone, especially in the beautiful aria Su la sponda at the beginning of the third act. His voice is actually the closest to a more baroque style that the other singers do not use – his use of vibrato is more subtle and less permanent.

This is a fine recording of one of Handel’s finest operas. While the singers could be a bit more baroque in sensitivity, this is a great work, one that has not been recorded much, and which deserves to be discovered or rediscovered through this fine set.

Kirk McElhearn

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