Handel's Acis & Galatea - Dunedin Consort - MusicWeb International

If you thought that we were unlikely to have any new Handel recordings to challenge existing recommendations, this new account of Acis and Galatea should make you think again. My former version of choice for Acis, the King's Consort, on Hyperion CDA66361/2, now becomes an honourable also-ran and has already found a new home.

I obtained the new Acis via a download from Linn's website and my original intention was simply to include it in my January 2009 Download Roundup. Two considerations persuaded me otherwise: it's too good just to receive a paragraph in a roundup which some of you may not yet have discovered - scroll down the page, past the concert reviews, to find it each month - and, as I downloaded it in CD-quality sound, it's fully comparable with the published article.

In fact, like other recent Linn recordings, it can even be obtained in better-than-CD quality as a 24-bit studio-quality download. This involves downloading a very large file and listening to the result other than via CD - the file is too large to burn to CD - and I'm perfectly happy with the quality of both Linn's wma and flac 16-bit files.

One other user-friendly aspect of Linn's website is that it never seems to suffer from traffic congestion - whatever your broadband speed, some sites will download only at about 50k when they are busy; Acis downloaded at over 800k.

Acis and Galatea was originally performed at Cannons, the home of the Earl of Caernarvon, later Duke of Chandos, for whose chapel Handel also composed the Chandos Anthems. The grand house is long gone but the chapel is still there, serving as the parish church, and its baroque splendours indicate how grand the house must have been. Grand though the house was, this first version of Acis was composed on a small scale, which makes it well suited to recording. William Christie (Erato 3984-25505-2, also part of a budget-price 6-CD collection on 2564-695641) has already offered us a chamber-sized performance of the later version, HWV49b, but this is the first attempt to reproduce the original and it is wholly successful. An inexpensive version on Brilliant Classics claimed to employ the original version, but actually uses larger forces - see Robert Hugill's unenthusiastic review.

John Butt's superb scholarship would have gone for naught if the end result had not been so convincing, with all concerned giving of their best. The Dunedin Consort and Players repeat the success of their earlier award-winning Messiah and St Matthew Passion. Right from the opening Sinfonia the orchestral playing is a delight - always the right ‘size' to match the smaller vocal forces.

There isn't a weak link in those vocal performers, whether performing as a small chorus in O the pleasure of the plains (CD1, tr.2) and elsewhere, or as soloists. Not only do they sing very well, their voices are also in the right proportion for the music. Traditionalists may hanker after Joan Sutherland as Galatea on the recent Chandos reissue of ‘Scenes from Acis and Galatea' (CHAN3147, with Sir Adrian Boult, the Decca recording from which I first got to know the work) but Susan Hamilton is a soprano much more in tune with the music's smaller scale; after all, if you want Handel opera, there's plenty to choose from, including Sutherland's own version of Alcina.

I thought Nicholas Mulroy's Acis marginally less impressive than Hamilton's Galatea, especially when their duet The flocks shall leave the mountains (CD2, tr.11) becomes a trio with Polyphemus breaking in. The slight disappointment is more a measure of the excellence of Hamilton and of Matthew Brook as Polyphemus than any reflection on Mulroy himself.

Handel reserves some of his best music for Polyphemus - the villain of the piece getting the best lines, as so often in Milton's Paradise Lost. Memories of Owen Brannigan in O ruddier than the cherry (CD2, tr.3) are not dispelled but, as with the Sutherland comparison, Brook's is a performance for a chamber performance, not for an opera. When he sings I rage - I melt - I burn (CD2, tr.2), he evokes real sympathy for a character who can take no more of his burning passion.

The words of the closing section, from Cease, Galatea, cease to grieve (CD2, tr.14) may be somewhat banal, but Handel sets them to wonderful music and the performance here allows the music to win hands down over the libretto. Even the trite rhyme in Galatea, dry thy tears,/Acis now a god appears (CD2, tr.17) fails to jar; many of us, in any case, first encountered Ovid in English via the rhyming couplets of the translation by ‘various eminent hands' which appeared a year before the Cannons performance of Acis, in 1717.

Elsewhere the libretto (by Gay and Pope?) rather improves on the 1717 translation - this section by Dryden - and even on Ovid himself:

uror enim, laesusque exaestuat acrius ignis,
cumque suis videor translatam viribus Aetnam
pectore ferre meo, nec tu, Galatea, moveris. [Metamorphoses XIII, 867-9]

For oh, I burn with love, and thy disdain
Augments at once my passion and my pain.
Translated Etna burns within my heart,
And thou, inhuman, wilt not ease my smart.

Loses the reference to Mount Etna and becomes

I rage - I melt - I burn!
The feeble god [Love] has stabb'd me to the heart.

with its post-Petrarchan contrasting opposites.

The recording, as I have already indicated, is of CD quality. I shall be very surprised if the physical discs are any better than the wma download though, of course, aficionados of surround sound will want the SACDs.

The notes in the booklet are scholarly and detailed. Try to print them on thin paper or they won't fit inside a slim-line 2-CD case.

I recently indicated that the Binchois Consort's recording of Dufay's Missa Se la face ay pale (Hyperion CDA67715) was already featuring in my thoughts as a possible Recording of the Year for 2009, less than two weeks after choosing this year's favourites. This new Acis and Galatea is an even more likely candidate for that honour.

MusicWeb International
05 January 2009