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 Recording of the Week  Handel – Agrippina & Germanico

I’ve been like a child in a sweet-shop this month, as a steady stream of exciting baroque opera releases have poured into the Presto office: it’s hard to know where to start with such an embarrassment of riches, so I thought I’d give you a brief round-up of the lot!

Alexandrina Pendatchanska
Alexandrina Pendatchanska

First up is Harmonia Mundi’s handsomely-presented Agrippina, recorded in the studio following an acclaimed run in Berlin last spring. Our scheming anti-heroine is Alexandrina Pendatchanska, a René Jacobs regular, supplying great vocal and visual glamour in best baroque-Lady-Macbeth mode and catching every nuance of this fabulously multi-faceted character (the first of the trailers below gives some idea of the sheer chutzpah of her performance). The delinquent apple of her eye, Nerone, is sung by Jennifer Rivera, who lacks fire in places but fields impeccable technique; Marcos Fink (brother of acclaimed mezzo Bernarda) is her missing-presumed-dead husband Claudio, who had me gaping in disbelief at the rumbling bottom Cs (at baroque pitch!) in his entrance aria. Bejun Mehta’s Ottone divided opinion in the office: perhaps his vibrant, occasionally slightly histrionic delivery won’t be to all tastes, but it’s a hugely committed performance and his heart-stopping Act Two lament is a highlight of the set.

The accompanying short film ‘Facing Agrippina’ is as beautiful as it is insightful, but the pathos and the comedy of this strangely hybrid work are everywhere apparent on the CDs alone. Listen to the bedroom-farce-like scene in the second act, then to Agrippina’s extended pangs of conscience at the opening of the third, and you’ll see just what I mean.

Agrippina was written during Handel’s time in Italy, and another work from the same period has been attracting some press attention of late: after discovering a manuscript entitled ‘Germanico’ by a ‘Sigr Hendl’ in a Florence library back in 2007, Italian musicologist and conductor Ottaviano Tenerani has now committed the work to disc. Dating from around 1706 and clocking in at just ninety minutes, Germanico is more serenata than full-scale opera: the ‘plot’ consists of a hero returning home to his loved ones, having a well-earned sleep, then describing the great dream he had! Though it’s impossible to be 100% certain about the authorship, it certainly sounds distinctively Handelian to us: the obbligato writing in particular foreshadows some of his later triumphs, whilst the trumpet-writing suggests that the young composer had been soaking up Italian influences during his stay! Perhaps Handel hadn’t quite mastered the art of accompanied recitative at this early stage (Germanico’s dream-sequence is almost endearingly four-square!), but there are memorable arias aplenty and the entire performance oozes conviction.

Max Emanuel Cencic
Max Emanuel Cencic

This month also sees new Gluck and Vivaldi sets, both starring the sensational Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. He packs an impressive punch in the upper reaches and listening to his clarion top notes, steely heroic timbre and dizzying coloratura in Vivaldi’s Farnace feels like hearing one of the great castrati first-hand!

Cencic is also on barnstorming form as a lovelorn emperor in Gluck’s Ezio. Like the two Handel works, Ezio was written early in the composer’s career, before he set about his mission to ‘reform’ opera seria with its convoluted plots, endless succession of metaphor arias and emphasis on vocal pyrotechnics. Ezio has all these in spades – arias about storm-tossed ships at sea, birds of prey and swelling rivers abound – but it’s all immensely well done and I enjoyed it hugely. It’s also the only recording in the current catalogue to use the original Prague version of the score: some of the most striking numbers were pruned or replaced for the later Vienna edition, not least the villainous tenor’s beautiful ‘overflowing stream’ aria which Gluck re-used later in Orfeo.

Speaking of Orfeo, Telemann’s opera on the subject (another recent discovery) was released internationally a few months ago, but I don’t think it ever made it into the UK. However, we’ve managed to find a supplier in Germany to source this and a number of other interesting looking things. It is therefore included below along with Paul Goodwin’s super Athalia with Lawrence Zazzo and Geraldine McGreevy from late last year which is also new to the UK.

Handel: Agrippina, HWV 6

Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Agrippina), Jennifer Rivera (Nerone), Sunhae Im (Poppea), Bejun Mehta (Ottone), Marcos Fink (Claudio), Neal Davies (Pallante), Dominique Visse (Mago Narciso) & Daniel Schmutzhard (Lesbo), Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs

Available Format: CD

Gluck: Ezio

Sonia Prina (Ezio), Max Emanuel Cencic (Valentiniano), Ann Hallenberg (Fulvia), Topi Lehtipuu (Massimo), Julian Pregardien (Varo), Mayuko Karasava (Onorio), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Vivaldi: Farnace

Max Emanuel Cencic (Farnace), Ann Hallenberg (Selinda), Karina Gauvin (Gilade), Daniel Behle (Pompeo), Ruxandra Donose (Tamiri), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Berenice), Emiliano Gonzales Toro (Aquilio), I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis

Available Format: CD

Handel: Athalia

Geraldine McGreevy (Athalia), Nuria Rial (Josabeth), Lawrence Zazzo (Joad), Charles Daniels (Mathan), David Wilson-Johnson (Abner), Kammerorchester Basel, Vocalconsort Berlin, Paul Goodwin

Available Format: CD