Handel CD Reviews

Schwäbisch Post: Everybody knows the many-voiced Halleluja from Georg Friedrich Händels “Messiah.” Also surviving, from the same composer, are Hallelujas for smaller forces which are no less appealing, though almost completely unknown. On his new CD, the singer and musicologist Robert Crowe presents the “Amen-Alleluia-Arias” for the first time. The shortest of one minute and the longest of just over six, these small but refined compositions set the words Amen and Halleluja wonderfully artistically. Brilliantly jubilant, with majestic pride or with deep-seating feeling, Robert Crowe gives each aria its own character and expression. He masters coloraturas and trills with breathtaking virtuosity, using many-faceted vocal colors and articulations. As a male soprano, Crowe commands an enormous vocal range. The swift changes from the heights into the lower reaches give one goose bumps–also in the spiritual hymns of English composers which, alongside several instrumental pieces, are to be discovered on this CD, all well-worth a listen. – Beate Krannich

Avvenire.it: Robert Crowe’s Vocal Boldness and Il Furioso Thrill with Händel’s Arias

Pure and simple exercises of study and skill or compositions with a precise and autonomous artistic dignity? The question arises spontaneously in face of the recording of the complete “Amen – Alleluia” Arias HWV 269-77 by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) performed by soprano Robert Crowe and by the ensemble Il Furioso directed by theorbo players Victor Coelho and David Dolata.

Over the course of two decades, from the late eighties of the eighteenth century, the Saxon Master conceived a series of nine songs characterized by a fair level of virtuosity, using only the words “Alleluia” and “Amen.” No only a bold challenge, but perfectly accomplished thanks to the technical mastery, to the inventive freshness, and to the elegant idiom of Handel’s genius. It’s a matter of songs that someone wanted to understand as “beautiful song introductions,” but that also reveal a facility only apparent, especially in the later ones, written when the composer was the leading protagonist of the English musical stage thanks to the production of Anthems and above all of great oratorios like Saul, Israel in Egypt, or Messiah.

Far beyond a series of didactic lessons in solfege, these are real arias of exquisite workmanship; do not be misled by the monotony of the text because the variety of the expressive range displayed here deeply explores the different nuances that can be traced back to two words so fundamental to the Christian religion; from pleasure to jubilation and to joy, passing through anguish and melancholy, resignation and pure contemplation.

Solid and of great taste, the instrumental accompaniment completely supports the dramatic temperament and Crowe’s not always impeccable vocal acrobatics. The collection also includes three pieces for organ obtained from original cylinders, probably engraved by Händel himself; direct and first-hand testimony that goes far beyond mere philological issues.  Andrea Milanesi

RCF Radio, France: “Vraiment magnifique. C’est vrai qu’on est sous le charme. Une voix d’une pureté incroyable.” – Emmanuelle Vigne et Melchior Gormand

Early Music America: Nearly half of this disc is made up of Handel’s settings of the words “Amen” and/or “Hallelujah,” likely intended for performance in private homes and deliberately light on lyrical content. Yet Handel makes these spiritual declarations by turns reflective (HWV 271), resigned (HWV 274), joyous but refined (HWV 276), virtuosic (HWV 277), and, of course, triumphant (HWV 275). The album also includes three vocal works from the Harmonia Sacra, a collection of sacred solo songs published in various editions during the late 17th century and also aimed at home use: William Croft’s bright, heavily ornamented hymn to music, an anonymous composer’s graphic vision of Christ’s crucifixion, and John Church’s emotionally ranging “A Divine Hymn,” which soprano Robert Crowe calls “a truly under-appreciated masterpiece.”

This music was intended for “amateur” musicians, meaning “non-professional” rather than “unskilled, dilettante” and certainly not “student,” according to Crowe. These works are technically involved and expressive, and the musicians approach them with obvious knowledge and affection. Crowe explained over email that “the limited word choice [in the Amen and Hallelujah arias] and those two words both containing relatively broad, powerful meanings meant that the affect had to be gleaned not from text but from the music written to undergird it.” Crowe’s musical instincts are spot-on throughout as he explores each work’s unique character. He tosses off some impressive sudden register shifts, including an unexpected dip into chest voice following chiming, upper-register melismas at the end of Croft’s “A Hymn On Divine Music.” Even during the most ornate line of the three Harmonia Sacra pieces, Crowe demonstrates fine diction and consistency of tone.

The American-Canadian ensemble Il Furioso partners Crowe with chamber organ and one or two theorbos on each track. The liner notes explain the historical precedent for the double theorbos, but the warm, undulating wash underneath and around Crowe justifies itself on purely sonic terms. The first, unornamented performance of HWV 270 (as opposed to the ornamented version closing the disc) is a great example of the simple but powerful effect of one theorbo doubling the organ’s bass line while another plucks the harmonies. HWV 269 is a superb example of the whole ensemble — singer and instrumentalists — breathing together and feeling the pulse as one. Theorbo sonatas by the obscure Ferraranese composer and theorbo virtuoso Giovanni Pittoni spotlight Il Furioso co-directors Victor Coehlo and David Dolata. Charming excerpts composed by Handel for mechanical musical clock showcase organist Juvenal Correa-Salas.

This reviewer had difficulty with the recording’s audio engineering, such as rumbling on Crowe’s highest notes and some muddiness in the instruments’ lower ranges (even after trying the disc on three sound systems). Those strictly technological issues aside, the origins of these works in private musicking, the spare accompaniment, and the musicians’ sensitive interplay make this a thoroughly intimate affair. – Andrew J. Sammut

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