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 Recording of the Week  Handel: Giulio Cesare and the Brockes Passion

After the Handel excesses of his anniversary celebrations last year, I’m slightly hesitant in featuring him again so early in 2010, but there are two important releases out today which I feel I just have to mention.

Firstly, a new recording of his most famous and most frequently performed opera – Giulio Cesare. Now while there is no shortage of good recordings of the opera already (in particular those by Marc Minkowski and René Jacobs on CD, and the DVD of the 2005 Glyndebourne production with William Christie), a new recording of the original 1724 version of the opera from Greek conductor George Petrou and the period instrument Orchestra of Patras presents a very strong challenger indeed. While the musicians are certainly not all household names, they’ll already be well known to Handel enthusiasts after their critically acclaimed and award winning recordings of other Handel operas Oreste, Arianna in Creta and Tamerlano also for MDG.

George Frederic Handel
George Frederic Handel

It took Handel only a few months to compose Giulio Cesare and he wrote parts for no less that three castrati with the big star of the time Senesino singing the part of Giulio Cesare. In modern productions this part is generally given to a contralto, mezzo-soprano or countertenor, or occasionally (particularly in the past) a baritone. In this new recording Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström (who was new to me) gives an outstanding account of the role. Her voice is a joy to listen to throughout and she sings with a deep musicality. She makes the coloratura passages sound easy and ornaments her arias very tastefully. An equally outstanding voice is that of Italian soprano Emanuela Galli who gives as dramatic a portrayal of Cleopatra as you’re ever likely to hear. Some will probably find her embellishments in the arias a bit over the top but I’d always urge on the side of too much rather than not enough in this regard. They’re often long arias in an opera which is nearly four hours long and there is nothing worse than being bored!

The supporting cast of mainly young Greek singers are all excellent, with Mary-Ellen Nesi’s Sesto of particular note, while the orchestra, supported by a continuo of two harpsichords, theorbo and cello, rise to all the challenges of this music with stylistic awareness and good balance. All in all hugely impressive and I’ve given you a sample of Kristina Hammarström coloratura below.

Another of Handel’s early works is his now largely forgotten Brockes Passion which receives a rare recording this week from the outstanding Kölner Kammerchor & Collegium Cartusianum under Peter Neumann. Completed in 1716 it pre-dates both the much more famous St. John and St. Matthew passions of J.S. Bach. The influence of Handel’s work on Bach must have been significant as, while Handel’s original manuscript is lost, the work survives in part thanks to a copy made in Bach’s own hand. Furthermore, listening to it now you could easily say it sounds more like Bach than it does Handel. The text is by poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, and was set by a number of other composers as well - most notably Telemann. Bach also later used parts of the text in his passions.

While the music isn’t as consistently superb as it is in Giulio Cesare, there are some beautiful arias and some very moving and dramatic moments. As far as I’m aware, although it has been recorded at least twice before, this is the only recording of the work currently available, and in any case it is hard to imagine a better one. Superbly played and sung throughout, and excellently captured by the Carus recording engineers, this is well worth hearing. I’ve put on the moving duet between Jesus and the Daughter of Zion as an example of both the quality of the music and the recording.

Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Kristina Hammarström (Cesare), Emanuela Galli (Cleopatra), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Sesto), Irini Karaianni (Cornelia), Orchestra of the Patras (period instruments), George Petrou

Available Format: 3 CDs

Handel: Brockes Passion HWV 48

Nele Gramß (Tochter Zion), Johanna Winkel (Gläubige Seele), Markus Brutscher (Evangelist), Markus Flaig (Jesus), Kölner Kammerchor & Collegium Cartusianum, Peter Neumann

Available Format: 2 CDs