Handel Goes Wild (CD review)

Valer Sabadus, countertenor; Nuria Rial, soprano; Christina Pluhar, L'Arpeggiata. Erato 0190295811693.

This is another novelty from conductor (and therobist) Christina Pluhar and her Baroque ensemble L'Arpeggiata: A recording that blends a period band with a contemporary jazz quintet to do improvisations inspired by the works of German composer George Frederic Handel (1685-1759). Ms. Pluhar and her group have done this kind of thing several times before, notably with albums of music by Purcell, Monteverdi, and Cavalli. The results may remind you, as they did me, of the discs from the Jacques Loussier Trio, a jazz group that has successfully navigated the classical world for decades. But Ms. Pluhar and her players go them one better in combining historical instruments with modern jazz ones and coming up with lusher, richer tones that still maintain much of the spirit of the original composer.

The program, mainly arias, highlights soloists in some selections, the jazz players on some tracks, and the period instruments ensemble in yet other numbers. What's more, some of the pieces are well known while others are less famous; some are slow, while others are fast; some are recognizable as Handel, while others are not quite so identifiable; and some are done relatively straight, while others are more jazz inflected. Thus, we get a good variety of music, from the energetic pomp of "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" (with interjections by the jazz ensemble) to the familiar larghetto "Ombra mai fu." Whether any of this will appeal to the committed classical lover or the enthusiastic jazz fan, however, is another story and entirely a matter of taste.

To give you an idea of the material involved, here's a list of the disc's contents:

  1. Sinfonia (from Alcina)
  2. "Venti, turbini" (from Rinaldo)
  3. "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" (from Semele)
  4. Vivaldi Allegro (from Concerto in G minor)
  5. "Cara sposa" (from Rinaldo)
  6. "Where'er you walk" (from Semele)
  7. "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" (from Solomon)
  8. "Pena tiranna" (from Amadigi di Gaula)
  9. "PiangerĂ² la sorte mia" (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto)
10. Canario (improvisations based on Girolamo Kapsberger)
11. "Verdi prati" (from Alcina)
12. "Tu del Ciel ministro eletto" (from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno)
13. "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" (from Alcina)
14. "Lascia ch'io pianga" (from Rinaldo)
15 "Ombra mai fu" (from Serse)

Christina Pluhar
So, OK, admittedly, it's a little hard to judge either the music or the performances until you get past the oddity of the album's concept. Nevertheless, even though one may question the album's purpose and appeal, there should be no question about its sincerity. Ms. Pluhar and her fellow musicians appear wholly committed to the approach, whatever classification you might apply to it. She and her players are excellent, professional musicians who produce crisp, well-polished performances, whether you call it classical, jazz, or fusion.

The opening tune is a good example of the program's diversity as well as its controversy. Even the seasoned Handel admirer might have trouble recognizing the Sinfonia from Alcina, beginning as it does with light jazz riffs that take a while to open up into something resembling traditional Handel. The next piece, the aria "Venti, turbini" from Rinaldo, is more clearly Handel, especially when the countertenor Valer Sabadus enters, and no amount of jazz accents can hide the composer's rhythms.

And so it goes. The aria "O Sleep, why dost thou leave me" from Semele has the lovely quality of a music-box lullaby about it; the Vivaldi Allegro from Concerto in G minor finds a more jazz-oriented tone with double bass, piano, and clarinet dominating the piece until the rest of the players join in; and so on.

Earlier I asked whether the album would appeal more to jazz or classical lovers, and I'm hard pressed to provide an answer. There may not be enough of one or the other idiom to satisfy either camp. So maybe its appeal is to neither; that is, its major attraction may be to folks who don't have strong convictions one way or the other. Then again, those same listeners may think it's too much of one or the other, jazz or classical, so who knows.

The album is an odd duck, to be sure. My recommendation is to try and listen to as many selections from it as possible before laying out any cash. I found a lot of it delightful and fascinating, but at seventy-five minutes, it also seemed a bit too much of a good thing.

Sound, mixing, and mastering engineer Hugues Deschaux recorded the album in Switzerland in November 2016. The sonics have a smooth, well-rounded texture that is pleasing to the ear if not entirely transparent. The room acoustics open up the sound to a warm bloom, with a good sense of space and depth. Much of it, though, appears a bit too close up in relation to the softness of the music, which would seem to indicate a more distant perspective. Still, minor quibbles. The sound is appealing.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa