I suppose I should have taken time off and really gone to town for the Handel 250th Anniversary. However, despite a day full of the mundane, I’ve still managed to squeeze in plenty of inspiring music. My pleasure has been all the greater as I’ve been able to put my new hi-fi equipment through its paces for the first time. I’ve been slowly replacing the system in my study over the past couple of years, as it mostly dated from the late 1970s (a twenty-first birthday present from my parents). The amp was changed first, then the CD player. Now I’ve splashed out on a new turntable (a Pro-Ject 1 Xpression III) and pair of speakers (Usher S-520 monitors).
Apart from dipping into the live broadcast of Messiah on Radio 3 (which seemed a tad cool for my taste), I’ve enjoyed a couple of LPs and some new CDs. The Handel recital by Rolando Villazón on DG is a mixed bag. I really like the slower arias, but the faster ones are just a bit lacking in focus. This affects the recitative also – it’s pleasingly dramatic (you get the impression he would do this well on stage), but his emotions sometimes spill over into the voice, which loses its tone. If you want to hear him at his best, I’d choose, say, track 3 – Pastorello d’un povero armento from Rodelinda : beautifully smooth singing (no intrusive breathiness), exemplary diction, and full of meaning. I also loved his performance of the accompagnato Tu, spietato, il vedrai, Bajazet’s death scene from Tamerlano. No doubt Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players have something to do with that too – their performance throughout the disc is ear-catchingly beautiful.
I suppose the Villazón disc is a sort of ‘crossover’ album, but the period style is now pretty much mainstream, and in any case there’s always been rather less distinction between baroque specialist voices and their modern counterparts than between the equivalent instrumental soundworlds. To remind me how things used to be, I played an LP of excerpts from Israel in Egypt with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Phil conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. The choral sound is, to modern ears, somewhat bloated and fuzzy-edged, and the orchestration is certainly brass-heavy at times, but you can have no doubt that everyone is totally involved in the performance. The tempi, for such a large ensemble, are surprisingly close to what we’d expect nowadays; the soloists (Elsie Morison, Monica Sinclair and Richard Lewis) full-voiced but never over-blown. The final section, culminating in the unexpected soprano solo introducing the also unexpected reprise of the ‘horse and his rider’ chorus, is thrilling: this is the sort of music that really makes me want to get up and dance.
All of which makes me ponder: much as I have enjoyed, supported, and promoted the period movement over the past thirty-five years, the point of all music must be to generate in the listener the appropriate emotional response. The actual sound of the music is only one element of that – there’s also the undefinable spark that comes from a committed performance. And no-one has a monopoly on those.