Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr here assemble all the viola da gamba sonatas written by three composers born in the propitious year of 1685: one each by Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, and three by JS Bach. Isserlis plays them on the gamba’s modern cousin, the cello, and the microphone loves his playing, picking up all the nuances and scampering asides from his soft-spoken instrument which can sometimes get lost in big concert halls. Egarr on harpsichord matches Isserlis’s eloquence and rambunctious energy all the way. The dreamy, airy slow movement of Bach’s Sonata in G minor brings telling use of vibrato as Isserlis circles around Egarr, his playing at once idiomatic and soulful. An extra cellist reinforces the bass line in the Handel and Scarlatti, in which the composers give the harpsichordist only a framework; Egarr’s imaginative realisations ensure that even when Scarlatti is at his most repetitive, he is never dull.
Resplendent in his powdered wig and 18th century garb, Maestro Handel (aka, Director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins) leads Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, a stellar cast of soloists - soprano, Suzie LeBlanc, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Rufus Muller, and baritone Locky Chung - and a mass audience choir made up of more than 1000 Tafelmusik fans as they perform Handel's baroque masterpiece. A Toronto tradition beloved by thousands, Tafelmusik's annual Sing-Along Messiah has become a revered family ritual for many over the past 25 years.
While it isn't Handel's most obscure opera (hum a few bars from Catone, anyone?), Siroe, Re di Persia is definitely on the margins. It's hard to say why exactly, although the unflatteringly edited Metastasio libretto (by Nicola Haym) is surely part of the reason; the character and conflict development of the original are largely missing from the version Handel set. But the music is Handel at his best, and let's face it: from the perspective of a modern listener, plot is not the main draw of opera seria. With that in mind, Harmonia Mundi's complete recording, with Andreas Spering and the Cappella Coloniensis, is an excellent first step toward giving Siroe wider exposure. It's well played, thoughtfully conducted, and it features an excellent trio of leading ladies.
Handel composed his chamber duets and trios – nine of them presented here – at various times in his career: some during his crucial period in Italy, when he imbibed the latest Italian style at its source (1707-9); some during his period in Hanover (1710-12); and some during his London years (in 1720, then again in 1740-5). Their demands are often virtuosic: here sopranos Roberta Invernizzi and Silvia Frigato share the honours with tenor Krystian Adam and baritone Thomas Bauer, and they are all up to the pieces’ demands, even if occasionally, when the semiquavers come thick and fast, the result feels a little dogged.