Handel's Acis & Galatea - Dunedin Consort - The Observer

Is Handel's Acis and Galatea a masque, a serenata or a miniature opera? It's really of no consequence; what matters is how this gloriously melodic music is played and sung. If we relied on the plot alone, it would be a very slight drama. It goes something like this: girl sighs for boy, boy sighs for girl, boy killed by rival (cue much lamenting), boy handily becomes immortal.

Whatever we call this pastoral entertainment, it is a milestone in Handel's bountiful output. As John Butt, director of this triumphant recording notes, it marks Handel's fi rst setting of a substantial dramatic English text and springs from the year that he enjoyed as composer to the Earl of Carnarvon, based at Cannons, his country estate near Edgware, Middlesex. Here, Handel could escape the financial pressures of the public stage and concentrate on providing music for the earl's band of musicians and singers.

That presented a challenge. The earl employed a soprano, a bass and three tenors, but no alto. Handel set the piece accordingly, handily devising the roles of Damon and Coridon to complement the role of Acis and give the other two tenors a part in the story of the shepherd and his love for Galatea, a love cut short by the jealous giant Polyphemus, who, probably representing Mount Etna, kills Acis with a single rock.

Ever the scholar, Butt performs here from the 1718 score, using only the forces that Handel had at his disposal - four violins, no violas, two cellos, bass, two recorders, two oboes and bassoon. All the soloists sing the chorus parts. The result is a wonderfully intimate reading, which bounces along with the spring and precision of a chamber performance. There is some world-class singing here: Susan Hamilton portrays Galatea with startling clarity and sincerity; Nicholas Mulroy makes an affecting Acis and the tremendous Matthew Brook combines power and pathos as Polyphemus. Joined by tenors Thomas Hobbs and Nicholas Hurndall Smith, they make a ravishing chorus.

The Glasgow-based Dunedin Consort and Players are making waves in the world of authentic performance. This recording will surely enhance their reputation.

The Observer
09 November 2008