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CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL,
This review is from: Handel's Bestiary (Hardcover)
This ought to sell well among all age-groups. The detective novelist Donna Leon has had the charming brainwave of extracting arias by her adored Handel from various of his operas and oratorios and constructing a modern pastiche bestiary around them. Handel himself lived from 1685 to 1759, zoos were not common (if indeed there were any) in the Europe of his day, but the public had an understandable fascination with fabled animals. Sometimes these were perfectly familiar up to a point - doves, frogs and bees obviously come in to this category - but were still surrounded by legends. Others were mainly known by rumour, such as lions tigers and elephants; and of course a few purely fabulous creatures still haunted the popular imagination, our example here being the phoenix.
The main ingredient of a traditional bestiary is the illustrations, and Michael Sowa does brilliantly with these, tongue obviously in cheek. Donna Leon herself accompanies each of these with a short text summarising some stories about the creatures in question. These are not unsuitably scholarly or heavy, but they are very interesting, and at the start of each of these little essays there are the words (with English translation if the original was in Italian) of the aria in which the given animal bird or insect features on the cd attached to inside of the back cover. When Donna Leon produces supposed `derivations' of various names I like to think she is simply repeating what Pliny said. In the unlikely event that she believes them, please be careful not to believe them yourself. The ancients had absolutely not a clue about this matter, and the whole science of comparative philology only got going at round about Handel's own time when the mighty Richard Bentley, tyrannical Master of Trinity College Cambridge, identified an unwritten w-sound in Greek that exposed striking parallels with Latin and other languages. In particular neither I nor my Greek lexicon ever heard of a word `eliphios' apparently signifying mountain, but the fable that elephants were supposed to have no knees is interesting, because I could swear I remember the same nonsense being repeated by no less than Julius Caesar in his Commentaries, but referring to elks and not elephants.
Another thing I like this book for is the service is does to Handel. For Beethoven Handel was the greatest composer who ever lived, but he underwent a serious eclipse starting in the late 19th century. The last 50 years has seen this matter largely rectified, but 50 years is still not long enough for such a complex phenomenon as Handel to be completely re-established in our musical culture. Here, to be going on with, is a beautiful selection of 12 arias (one a duet) performed in the proper period style by first-class interpreters. Three of them are from oratorios, and my collection contains all of those: the others are from the Italian operas, of which I own only half a dozen so far, but where'er we walk in Handel we unfailingly encounter his matchless adroitness in intertwining the vocal and instrumental lines. The great Haydn was driven to exclaim that Handel made him feel a beginner, and if I had more than one lifetime I don't imagine I could ever get the full measure of what it was that Beethoven and Haydn were so quick to perceive.
Back to earth, the singers are a soprano, a mezzo and two tenors. This seems to me ideal for a production like this that aims to be popular - no countertenors keening at us, and no basses woofling is the way it should be. Where there is a recitative accompanying the aria there is a separate track for it, so the producers could hardly have done more to make it easy and convenient for us. All we have to do is enjoy it.