Having collaborated on a previous release for Hyperion of Handel arias for bass ("base"), Christopher Purves and Jonathan Cohen have joined forces again (with the ensemble Arcangelo) for another, similarly eclectic, compilation. As well as arias for operatic tyrants and patriarchal figures from the Biblical oratorios, and the early Italian Cantata ‘Nell’africane selve’ (1708, whose first aria provides the basic theme for that of one the chosen extracts from Esther, making a subtle musical connection in this programme), there is also featured an aria by Nicola Porpora. Presumably that is included since Handel took it over from his rival’s opera, Poro, when collating various recent operatic hits for the 1732 pasticcio Catone, demonstrating the ways in which Handel had to adapt pre-written as well as original music for his singers. The lighter texture of Porpora’s work calls from Purves and Cohen a correspondingly fleet-footed, furtive manner, particularly from the uncredited solo bassoon.
Purves’s response to the genuine music by Handel is generally clear-voiced and supple, with words well enunciated and the music – often avoiding coloratura – projected with seamless, even tone. That is a notable technical achievement in the higher register required for ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ from Siroe (1728), and even more so for the wide leaps of the Cantata: in evoking the loss of liberty that attends the singer’s helplessly falling in love by using the metaphor of a captured lion, Purves ranges over the mighty tessitura of two-and-a-half octaves with stable intonation and musical sensitivity.
He is also effective at evoking quiet authority and control as the Biblical figures Haman, Abner, Gobrias and Caleb in the oratorios Esther, Athalia, Belshazzar and Joshua respectively, for example as he magically floats the melody of Haman’s ‘Turn not, O queen, thy face away’ over floating strings, or contrives a convincing stoicism as Gobrias for ‘Opprest with never-ceasing grief’. In other selections, however, more stentorian heft would have been welcome to depict the righteous anger of Abner’s ‘When storms the proud to terrors doom’, or the evil machinations of such roles as Cosroe and Araspe from Siroe and Tolomeo (both 1728) as originally created by Giuseppe Maria Boschi who specialised in such characters – ‘Piangi pur’ from the latter opera feels too relaxed. Perhaps it is for this reason that more music (other than the Porpora aria) originally performed by another of Handel’s great basses, Antonio Montagnana, was not included, who created roles in Ezio and Orlando for example, as they tend to require considerable force as well as the agility to negotiate wide intervals.
Cohen and Arcangelo’s support is stylish and vivid in setting the temper of each aria, but not dominating the singer. The opening of the Concerto grosso (Opus 3/4) is dignified but urgent, not pompous; and the ensemble imports a delectable French manner in its execution of the concluding Minuet with notes inégales and expressive appoggiaturas leaning into the next note in frequent segments of phrases, appropriate in a work which did service as a ‘symphony’ within a performance of Handel’s Amadigi, a rare instance of the composer turning to a French source for an opera.
Listeners, old and new, will find that this release confirms Purves as one of the most sympathetic exponents of this repertoire, though a touch more contrast to bring out the Baroque Affekt of the varied selections would have made for an even more impressive and multifarious collection overall. The booklet includes texts and translations.