Handel's Acis & Galatea - Dunedin Consort - Audiophile Audition

Handel's Acis and Galatea is a pre-London pastoral entertainment composed at Cannons (near Edgware) for the Earl of Carnavon. His ensemble, the "Cannon Concert" was comprised of a few outstanding musicians that allowed him to experiment with all sorts of devices and schemes that undoubtedly served him well in his later sojourns and the establishment of that form which was to serve him so well, the English Oratorio. He had set this story earlier, derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and was quite familiar with the genre of pastoral poetry and its elegant use in the setting of songs.

The story is simple and a little alarming in its sadness: Galatea the nymph loves the shepherd Acis, and vice-versa. They are separated and find each other again, expecting long-lived bliss. Polyphemus the giant has his own designs on Galatea and kills Acis. Galatea uses her divine powers to turn Acis into an everlasting fountain. This action somehow restores order from the chaos and allows Handel to engage his music in the telling of a story that attempts to reconcile the idealistic tendencies of the pastoralists (like Alexander Pope) with the very real urges of physicality and emotionality. This music is wonderfully lyrical and serene, gorgeously attuned to the words (as only he could do) and provides about 90 minutes of contemplative bliss.

This is the very first version (sans alto) and uses the players as a chorus as well, which in this case seems to be the pretty clear indication of the composer. Only the Christie version on Erato challenges this one in my opinion, and the singing here is simply stunning in its unaffected deliberateness and coy expression. Susan Hamilton is spectacular as Galatea (what an innate sense of lyrical ability she has!) and the characterization of Polyphemus by Matthew Brook is simply wonderful. The Dunedin consort is slowly asserting itself as one of the premiere period instrument ensembles anywhere, and they have the good sense to be recording their efforts in beautifully captured Super Audio. Handel fans rejoice-a definitive Acis and Galatea at last!

Audiophile Audition
31 December 2008