Handel Eternal Heaven ERATO

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Eternal Heaven
Lea Desandre (mezzo-soprano)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Jupiter/Thomas Dunford (lute)
rec. 2021, Chapelle Corneille, Rouen
Sung texts with German and French translations enclosed
Reviewed as download from press preview
Erato 5419719677 [86]

“And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods

 Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.”

This quotation from Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is the motto for this album. Alex Blake’s liner notes say nothing about the music included but is rather a philosophical essay on the importance of music for us, human beings. He concludes: 

“To anyone who might be reading these few lines, I send the wish that, while listening to these incredible artists, your logic is confounded and you are borne aloft towards that which these glorious pieces of music summon us to: something far greater than ourselves.” That is to say: We need not always bother about historical or technical matters as long as we enjoy the music. And the best way to enjoy it is to put the disc in your CD-player, look up the texts – or just close your eyes – and spend the next 86 minutes enclosed in yourself. 

Just to fulfil my task as a reviewer I’ll make a few comments on the contents, but you can just as well skip the next paragraph and go directly to the listening experience. 

The programme is made up of arias and duets from a number of Handel’s oratorios and other sacred works and also includes an instrumental piece. The final number is not by Handel but is a piece by Doug Balliett and Thomas Dunford, the musical director, and is possibly inspired by Handel, but the notes give no explanation. The opening number, Eternal source of light divine, the title of which also is a motto for the whole programme, is possibly the best-known work here, and it is originally an alto solo with solo trumpet, but is here transcribed to a duet for alto and soprano.  It works eminently in the new garb with the crystal-clear soprano voice a festive surrogate for the brass instrument. What follows after that invigorating introduction is a super-long programme with Handel at his very best – which he almost always is – very contrastive for maximal variability. Slow, beautiful melodies rub shoulders with up-tempo rhythmical display pieces where stunning coloratura flows freely, sometimes with dramatic undertones. The instrumental ensemble Jupiter under Thomas Dunford provide stimulating support with excellent solo contributions from the woodwind and Thomas Dunford’s lute. Of the two vocal soloists, who also sing together in eight duets, Iestyn Davies has for fifteen years now been well established as one of the leading international countertenors; French-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre was a new name to me, but she already has an expansive discography behind her, although she is still only in her late twenties. She is specially trained in baroque opera but has ambitions to widen her repertoire and has already taken on some Mozart roles. Both have voices of exceptional quality and technical capacity to boot. Ms Desandre demonstrates her phenomenal coloratura in, for instance. Prophetic raptures swell my breast from Joseph and his Brethren (tr. 10), Fly from the threat’ning vengeance, fly! from Occasional Oratorio (tr. 16) and No, no, I’ll take no less from Semele (tr. 19), while Davies marvellous voice control is in the fore in another aria from Semele: Despair no more shall wound me (tr. 6), and together they show their acuity in the duet Joys of freedom from Hercules (tr. 4), where one also notices how well their voices match when they sing in unison. 

Even more than these showpiece, however, it is some slow beautiful airs that touch me most and stay longest in my memory – which is often the case with Handel’s vocal works: As with rosy steps the morn from Theodora (tr. 5) (LD); Will the sun forget to streak from Semele (tr. 7) (SD) with an obligato oboe solo; O Lord, whose mercies numberless from Saul (tr. 9) (ID); Thither let our hearts aspire from Theodora (tr. 11) (LD & ID) and, maybe the loveliest of all, Guardian angels, oh, protect me from The Triumph of Time & Truth (LD), again with obbligato oboe. Do lend an ear, too, to the only instrumental piece, Sarabande, the third movement from the Suite in D minor (tr. 12). It is melancholy but beautiful and a suitable moment for contemplation in the middle of the programme. 

As you see there is room here for all the vicissitudes of life – just as the foreword presaged – and what about the bonus track? There is a long pause after the ordinary programme, and one begins to believe that there is nothing more. But don’t despair. Eventually it begins, almost inaudibly, and when the volume increases it sounds like Handel, but not quite. Then it changes character and suddenly we are listening to something I, with my lack of suitable vocabulary, would call a rock ballad. It is decidedly present-day music, and a surprising twist from what has gone before. Then we gradually return to the pseudo-Handel from the beginning – and that’s it. A flying visit from Handel and his 18th century to his far-away future, and then back. One might wonder: for whom was it the greatest surprise? Him or us? We will never know, but we do know that we have experienced musicmaking of the highest order on both sides of the long pause, and we know that this is a disc not only for Handel freaks and baroque lovers but for anyone with an open mind for whom no borderlines exist.

Göran Forsling

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Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne HWV 74:
1. Eternal source of light divine
Theodora HWV 68:
2. With darkness deep, as is my woe
The Choice of Hercules HWV 69:
3. Yet can I hear that dulcet lay
Hercules HWV 60:
4. Joys of freedom
Theodora HWV 68:
5. As with rosy steps the morn
Semele HWV 58:
6. Despair no more shall wound me
Solomon HWV 67:
7. Will the sun forget to streak
Susanna HWV 66:
8. To my chaste Susanna’s praise
Saul HWV 53:
9. O Lord, whose mercies numberless
Joseph and his Brethren HWV 59:
10. Prophetic raptures swell my breast
Theodora HWV 68:
11. Thither let our hearts aspire
Suite in D minor HWV 437:
12. Sarabande
Semele HWV 58:
13. Prepare then, ye immortal choir
14. Hence, Iris, hence away
The Triumph of Time & Truth HWV 71:
15. Guardian angels, oh, protect me
Occasional Oratorio HWV 62:
16. Fly from the threat’ning vengeance, fly!
Semele HWV 58:
17. You’ve undone me
Esther HWV 50b:
18. Who calls my parting soul from death?
Semele HWV 58:
19. No, no, I’ll take no less
20. But hark, the heav’nly sphere turns round
Theodora HWV 68:
21. To thee thou glorious son of worth/To thee, whose virtues suit thy birth
Doug Balliett & Thomas Dunford
22. That’s so you