Handel Acis 4529732

George Frederick Handel (1685-1769)
Acis and Galatea (HWV 49, ed Jane Glover)
Galatea – Jill Gomez, soprano
Acis – Robert Tear, tenor
Polyphemus – Benjamin Luxon, baritone
Damon – Philip Langridge, tenor
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. 1977, venue not stated
Presto CD
DECCA 452 973-2
[2 CDs: 144]

Back in 2018, when reviewing the Pristine remastering of Sir Adrian Boult’s 1959 set of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, I spent some time discussing the earlier recording history of this delightful serenata and the surprising lack of issues during the earlier years of the LP era. I referred then tangentially to the emergence of this recording under Sir Neville Marriner in 1978 as being the first attempt to give the score complete and unabridged in an authentically edited version, and it is good that Presto should now have given a new lease of life to the original recording as it appeared on CD as part of a Double Decca release in 1998, with a whole raft of bonuses.

It has tended over the years to be overshadowed by the near-contemporary issue of the version conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, which was the first Acis and Galatea to be given on period instruments, and by a whole raft of later versions using similar forces; but at the same time it may be regarded as the culmination of the first wave of post-1945 Handel authenticity, when despite the use of modern instruments (excepting the use of recorders, already pioneered in the Boult recording) and traditional voice production, the scores were given in properly edited versions using Handel’s own manuscripts. With Acis and Galatea this was a particularly fraught exercise. Handel frequently revived his score over the years, and inevitably this meant not only revival but revision; roles were added and deleted, a duet version of Happy we at the end of Act One was expanded to include a chorus, and so on. The standard Victorian edition edited by Joseph Barnby for Novello combined elements from different versions, transferred tenor lines to choral altos, and made other alterations (including recommendations for abridgement within certain numbers) in accordance with Mozart’s later performing edition of the score in a quite arbitrary fashion. Sir Neville rightly has no truck with any of this; but unlike most of his successors he does not simply plump for one of Handel’s versions and stick with it, but combines elements from different editions to produce the most complete text achievable. This includes a further (and most enjoyable) extension of the Happy we duet even beyond that given by Barnby as an option in his Novello edition. Unfortunately, beyond the fact that the editorial decisions are attributed to Jane Glover, the booklet note by Philip Weller gives us no information or rationale behind the edition employed, although this is clearly a matter of some interest and importance. I seem to recall that the original LP set back in the 1970s gave considerably more detail.

Be that as it may, this remains a thoroughly recommendable traversal of the score, giving us as much of the score as we could possibly want in a well-considered idiomatic presentation.  Those who yearn for the contributions of period instruments, or who object to the employment of vocal vibrato in baroque music, are advised to steer clear; but those who relish the sound of a well-tuned performance, lively in spirit and yet not devoid of emotional delivery, will find this set eminently satisfactory. The three principal roles are excellently taken – Jill Gomez beautifully delicate and poised, and yet with a command of coloratura embellishment that rivals even Dame Joan Sutherland in the Boult set; Robert Tear warm and affectionate, producing stronger tone than might regarded as authentically Handelian nowadays but never unwontedly so; and Benjamin Luxon, stronger of projection than Owen Brannigan for Boult and not at that stage in his career affected by the unsteadiness that progressively affected his career in later years. Even a minor role like Damon is taken by a very young Philip Langridge, at the stage in his career sounding decidedly smaller-voiced than Tear, but still firm and agile; and the choral parts, taken by solo singers in accordance with Handelian practice, contain such eminent names as Paul Esswood, Wynford Evans and Neil Jenkins. I must admit that it makes much better dramatic sense, as here, when the choral parts are taken by different singers from the principals; it surely makes nonsense of Gay’s lyrics when the bass singing Polyphemus, having dispatched Acis with a rock, immediately joins in the lament for his death, no matter what the stringencies of eighteenth-century funding might have necessitated.

The bonus tracks here are a rather mixed bunch, taken from two separate recital discs issued in 1970 and 1972 featuring Robert Tear. The vocal Handelian items – two settings of Brockes and the mini-cantata Look down, harmonious Saint – are fairly inconsequential, although Marriner does provide plenty of jollity and weight in the purely orchestral hunting scene from Il pastor fido. The two Arne cantatas, however, are a more formidable proposition. Bacchus and Ariadne comes close to being a full-scale operatic scena, with plentiful illustrations of nature and climate which anticipate in many ways the later music of Haydn and show the clear influence of French baroque contemporaries. One could even imagine it being given by three distinct voices for each of the characters, rather than as here having all parts (including oddly that of the deserted Ariadne) being sung by Tear – indeed, alternative recordings do precisely this. And the solo cantata Fair Caelia love pretended does not appear to have been recorded since this issue back in 1970; it was recommended by Brian Wilson on this site back in 2010, although he noted then that the recording no longer seemed to be available. This is a setting of a delightfully wry and witty poem by Congreve, and it is great fun. Finally we are given two further songs: an unexpectedly anti-war lyric by William Boyce, and James Hook’s comparatively familiar and somewhat later The lass of Richmond Hill, complete with a charming flute solo where the player remains unfairly uncredited. Elsewhere too the performances are exquisite, featuring solo violin contributions from Iona Brown and harpsichord continuo from Simon Preston.

The booklet notes, as I have already indicated, are fairly basic, and do not always provide such essential information as dates and provenance of the music (those given in this review have been largely supplied by myself); but they do come in English, French and German. And we are also unexpectedly provided with the complete texts in English and German (for the Brockes pieces) and translations for the latter. Which all makes for a very attractive proposition indeed, and a package that thoroughly deserves its Presto reissue.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Other works

George Frederick Handel

Il pastor fido, HWV 8: Hunting scene*

Look down, harmonious Saint, HWV 124

Meine Seele hört im Sehen, HWV 207

Süsse Stille, HWV 205

Thomas Arne (1710-76)

Bacchus and Ariadne (1755)

Fair Caelia love pretended (1749)

William Boyce (1711-79)

Song of Momus to Mars (1746)

James Hook (1746-1827)

Sweet lass of Richmond Hill (1789)

Robert Tear (tenor), Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner

rec. 1969 and 1971*

Chorus: Jennifer Smith (soprano), Margaret Cable (contralto), Paul Esswood (counter-tenor), Wynford Evans and Neil Jenkins (tenors), Richard Jackson (bass)