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. "Piangerò 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)
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: