What with the appearance earlier this year of David Bates's/La Nuova Musica's recording of Handel's first version of Il Pastor Fido and now this Alceste by Christopher Curnyn and his Early Opera Company this is turning into an interesting year for recordings of rarely heard Handel. As the other reviewer notes, Alceste is the incidental music that Handel wrote for a now lost play by Tobias Smollett; when the production collapsed Handel recycled the best of his music for Alceste in other works. It is a shame that we do not get to hear the music more often in its originally intended form. The only other recording I know of is a version by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music from the early 1990s, no longer available.
Certainly this is, as the other reviewer puts it, a 'minor' work. But that is not to say that the music is not of very high quality and what is striking is the sheer variety that is on display. The highpoint of the disc is of course the 'Gentle Morpheus' aria in which Lucy Crowe offers a performance that is every bit as good as a radiant Emma Kirkby on Hogwood's earlier recording. The overture is lovely and there are some fine orchestral pieces and some memorable arias as well as a number of choral pieces ranging in mood from the ebullient 'All hail, though mighty son of Jove' to a 'Thrice Happy' which shows the distinctly English influence of Purcell. As make-weight pieces Curnyn also includes a Sinfonia from Admeto and the gorgeous Passacaille from Radamisto.
If Lucy Crowe confirms her reputation as a rising star of early music, the other singers are also very good and the performance under Curnyn's direction is fleet, forthright and buoyant and devoid of affectation. The acoustic is, as the other reviewer observes, slightly reverberent, but this does bring out the actually small orchestra's robust and virile sound effectively. All in all, this is fine music well played and well captured: 'Thrice happy' indeed.
Although it was never actually performed by the composer, Handel's "Alceste" was the anticipated fruit of a collaborative venture involving the composer, the playwright and author Tobias Smollett, the Covent Garden company of singers and actors, the theatre owner and manager John Rich (of "Beggar's Opera" fame), Handel's librettist Thomas Morrell (who probably wrote the texts of the songs) and the designer Giovanni Servadoni. This incidental music for a play in spoken English has considerable charm and is here lovingly performed by Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Group, who have produced several noteworthy recordings over the past few years.
Although the theatrical venture was aborted, Handel's glorious music survived and one of the numbers, "Gentle Morpheus, son of night" has become one of the most popular arias in the Handel soprano repertoire; it is here ravishingly sung by Lucy Crowe, who is in fine form throughout. Her voice has more of a creamy quality than Emma Kirkby's (who sings it equally affectingly for Christopher Hogwood) and I suspect that her days as primarily an Early Music singer are drawing to a close. The other singers, Benjamin Hullett and Andrew Foster-Williams are equally fine, the former fielding a splendidly liquid tenor and the latter, although sounding more baritone than bass, is impressively resonant and agile in his number.
Curnyn has seamlessly interpolated a Sinfonia from "Admeto" and a Passacaille entr'acte from "Radamisto"; these are beautifully played and as I have said earlier, the singing and playing on this recording are of the highest order. This is a disc which will, I suspect, delight many.
This semi-opera was originally intended to complement Smollett's play at Covent Garden but for a variety of reasons - cost, arguments, lack of suitable singers - it never reached the stage. Never one to waste his labours, Handel made the best of things by re-cycling the majority of the music from this aborted project in "The Choice of Hercules", itself performed as an interlude during a revival of the ode "Alexander's Feast" and other numbers appeared in "Belshazzar" and "Alexander Balus". The original work was forgotten so we must be grateful for the chance to hear it reconstructed here for three main singers, with conductor Christian Curnyn choosing to insert two instrumental numbers to represent the banks of the Styx and Elysium respectively.
The sound is excellent: roomy, slightly reverberant and "churchy". The playing is exemplary and indeed often virtuosic - the work of the two trumpeters in particular, who slither up and down the scale wonderfully in the "Grande Entrée" (track 2). The small choir makes a lovely, well-tuned and balanced sound and their diction is excellent. Tenor Benjamin Hulett sings in the best tradition of British Handelian tenors such as the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson, being fleet and light yet virile of tone. I am less impressed by "bass-baritone" Andrew Foster-Williams, not because he is in any sense an inadequate singer but because in accordance with another less admirable British tradition he is clearly no kind of bass and hardly a baritone given his lack of low notes in his one area for Charon, "Ye fleeting shades, I come". His voice has the slightly throaty quality common to a singer working in too low a tessitura and the low E is a groan. The aria is expertly sung but lacks the macabre gravitas a true bass could impart to it.
The main vocal attraction here is the chance to hear up-and-coming soprano Lucy Crowe in several extended arias embracing a variety of styles. Although she is making a brilliant career as a lyric soprano, she in fact has a warm, mezzo-ish quality to her timbre with a very attractive, flickering vibrato which thankfully never approaches a tremolo. In the extended aria "Come, Fancy" she displays a trill, fluent coloratura and a welcome smile in the voice. Her centre-piece, however, and the most substantial piece in the whole work is the slow, da capo aria "Gentle Morpheus" which is in a mode of measured sublimity familiar to those who know their "Theodora", written at the same time and also doomed to ignominy before its modern revival and proper celebration as one of Handel's masterpieces.
The orchestral interpolations work and complement those such as the dignified "Frenchified" Symphony preceding Hercules' triumphant appearance with the rescued Alcestis. I really enjoyed the vigour and generous phrasing of the authentic band here; no squawking and no clipped phrases.
Unlike "Theodora", "Alceste" is not quite, I think, a masterpiece. For all its incidental beauties, it has an element of "Handel by the yard" about it but this is as persuasive an advocacy for its many charms as we are ever likely to get and I commend the musicality of the players and the two main singers in a nonetheless charming work.