Christopher Purves: "Handel's Finest Arias For Base Voice"
Arcangelo, Cohen. Hyperion CDA67842
British bass Christopher Purves brings experience as Wozzeck, Beckmesser, Falstaff, plus oratorio and new-music credits to an excellent recital of Handel's music for bass voice. The superb ensemble Arcangelo, under the direction of Jonathan Cohen, provides collaboration of the highest caliber, boasting splendid solo brass and wind playing and colorful, varied and spirited string sound.
Purves is a smart singer who finds character-definition in the music without ever intellectualizing it, and his fine ear for color and timbre brings something especially satisfying to each track, launching strongly with "Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto," Argante's pompous and showy entrance aria from Rinaldo. As David Vickers's excellent liner notes point out, the piece is musically impressive in spite of its nonsensical text: Alecto's hissing serpents and Scylla's howling have little to do with the Saracen king, because the piece was borrowed from a 1708 serenata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.
Both the Neapolitan version and Handel's later reworking of the story as Acis and Galatea are represented here, with the mesmerizing, restrained "Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori," in which the monstrous Polifemo poignantly compares himself to a disoriented butterfly in rapturous vocal lines of astonishing leaps and lengthy low notes. Purves's delicacy and poise are remarkable, as is the jolly energy he brings to "O ruddier than the cherry," the more ribald aria of the English Polyphemus.
Purves boasts a fine trill (clearly he pays a lot of attention to the orchestra) and an especially attractive upper register, although his provincial Italian (most noticeable in recitatives) needs refinement. What marks the bass as a fine Handelian is the emotional strength he brings to the reflective airs (especially "Tears, such as tender fathers shed," from Deborah, and "To pow'r immortal," from Belshazzar) balanced with the virtuosity on display in the showpieces. Without reliance on a frenetic tempo, Zoroastro's "Sorge infausta," from Orlando, bristles with purposeful coloratura and impressive cadenzas, while Valens's "Racks, gibbets, sword and fire," from Theodora, menaces with spitted nastiness.
Rarities are included, such as Apollo's final aria from the early cantata Apollo e Dafne (in which Cohen really lets the orchestra loose), "Nel mondo e nell'abisso," a vigorous aria from Riccardo Primo, and the fleet "Volate più dei venti," from the pasticcio Muzio Scevola. Basses, baritones, bass-baritones and undecided singers have much to emulate in Purves, and plenty of juicy material to poach.