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When Less Can Be More.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Gauvin, Handel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Review on December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

Review – Streams of Pleasure.
Karina Gauvin/Marie Nicole Lemieux/Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.

Here’s a conundrum. When can an exceptional recital disc be marred by trying to cram too much into it?

For me this seems the case with this recital of arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios performed by Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux.

Having seen both of them in an outstanding concert performance of Alcina (alongside an incredibly heroic Joyce DiDonato) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, it seemed only a matter of time before the two joined forces for a recital disc under Curtis’ direction.

While their decision to focus on Handel’s magnificent oratorios initially struck me as slightly unusual– and understandably they avoid any inclusions from The Messiah – this is in fact a superlative disc. Let’s be clear, they face inevitable comparison from Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Robin Blaze and their own oratorio disc released some years ago. Truth be told that remains a favourite recital disc of mine – Sampson’s wonderfully bright soprano coupled with Blaze’s clarion-like countertenor produces wonderfully intuitive music making. Whether by deliberate intention or accidental choice of repertoire, the Gauvin/Lemieux recital includes both duets and solo arias with few duplicate selections.

However what defines this new disc is a real sensuality in the performances as opposed to the almost chaste performances of the Sampson/Blaze recital disc. Don’t get me wrong, theirs are beautiful and often breathtaking performances, but the emotional reaction for me comes from the purity of their voices rather than any sense of emotion.

At fifteen tracks this new disc seems incredibly generous, so I was a little surprised to be left with a sense that a shorter selection would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

Without a doubt it is the duets that stand out appropriately so as it is the contrast of the vocal light and shade of Gauvin and Lemieux that lends this recital disc that aura of sensuality. The arias – with a few exceptions – do not match the emotional intensity of the duets and personally, ultimately seem to detract from the overall experience.

The disc opens with Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar and Lemieux is in fine fettle, throwing out the coloratura with ease and supported by jaunty playing from the ensemble. However, it’s not the strongest opening argument for the disc which is why it seems a daring choice for the second track to be what must count as one of the finest duets, from either oratorio or opera, that Handel ever wrote – the heart-wrenching To Thee, Thou Glorious Son of Worth, from the second act of Theodora. Again a comparison unconsciously comes to kind – that of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and David Daniels in Peter Sellar’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio at Glyndebourne. Perhaps one of the most original stagings of Handel and fortunately – not only for Hunt-Lieberson’s unforgettable performance but also Sellars’ intelligent production and direction – caught for posterity on DVD. In comparison to the Sampson/ Blaze performance, Curtis chooses a slightly faster tempo but none of the beauty of the vocal writing or the tragedy of the duet is lost. And it is here that that feeling of sensuality comes to the fore, perhaps its the plangent bassoon, so clearly heard in the opening ritornello, that sets the mood which is underlined by how beautifully the voices of Gauvin and Lemieux intertwine and weave against each other. However Curtis does not allow the singers too much indulgence, maintaining a rhythmic alertness throughout – just listen to the precise delivery of the rhythmic line in the second section. Another wonderful touch happens with the return to the first section. As I’ve mentioned previously – and Curtis is somewhat guilty of this in the recording of Alcina – there can be a tendency to over-ornament da capo sections. Fortunately this is not the case here. Another nice touch is how in the da capo of this particular duet it is Lemieux who leads, ornamenting her vocal line that is then mimicked by Gauvin. A beautiful touch – and psychological insight of the two characters perhaps? – which helps to make this one of the highlights of the entire disc and therefore surprising to hear it so early in to the recital.

The remaining duets are all as impeccably performed with a real sense of drama. For example even the short duet From This Dread Scene from Judas Maccabeus, with its crisp martial accompaniment, is memorable. Both soloists capture and clearly enjoy the inherent drama in this short yet incentive duet.

Theodora’s Streams of Pleasure Everflowing, from which the CD takes its title, reminded me how this oratorio contains some of Handel’s most inspired music in English. Lemieux opens in suitably reverent tone, her creamy contralto wrapping itself wonderfully around the words. When Gauvin joins her, the effect as their vocal lines entwine is magical. Just listen to the wonderful pointed phrasing at ‘All the blissful holy choir’, especially in their mini-cadenza, to feel how in tune these two performers really are.

Our Limpid Streams With Freedom Flow from Joshua is the least effective duet on the disc. While this is a clean cut performance, wonderfully sung, it strikes more as a track filler for what follows – a remarkable performance of Can I See My Infant Gor’d from Solomon. Without a doubt the bass line and hesitant strings above are meant to represent the anguished thoughts of the mother, and Gauvin’s performance captures the mood perfectly, particularly as her diction is absolutely clear. The closing bars from ‘Spare my child, take him all’ is incredibly poignant.

The final track on the disc, and a worthy counterpoint to the first duet is the magnificent duet Great Victor, At Your Feet I Bow from Belshazzar. This is a beautifully crafted piece with Handel so brilliantly capturing the opposing emotions of the two protagonists. Gauvin and Lemieux fit the roles perfectly, the chaste and mournful queen and the young, impetuous yet magnanimous Persian king, investing their words with a real sense of meaning and passion.

Of the remaining arias, Lemieux provides a heart-stopping performance of As With Rosy Steps The Morn. The hushed orchestral opening is matched by the contralto’s own entry. I was once again reminded of Hunt-Lieberson’s haunting performance of this aria. Lemieux’s interpretation, balancing the restraint of the opening section with the increased emotional temperature of the middle section, makes this performance more than a worthy successor.

Joseph And His Brethren is rarely performed which is a shame based on Gauvin’s performance of Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast. Clearly this aria was written for a soloist with an incredibly technique – not less evidenced by the opportunity for a cadenza at the soprano’s first entry. Research informs me it was written for Elisabeth Duparc, also known as La Francesina and for whom Handel also wrote the title role in Semele.

At almost nine minutes, this is a substantial aria and Gauvin delivers an impeccable and cheerful performance, throwing off the countless runs effortlessly. The minor mode middle section is memorable for the sudden shift in mood, and at the da capo Ms Gauvin’s ornamentation stays clearly on the side of intelligent – and perfectly delivered – addition rather than being over-florid and undermining the music.

Gauvin’s performance of My Father! Ah! Methinks I See The Sword from Hercules is suitably grief-laden. Written for the character Iole, it is one of Handel’s finest arioso-cum-arias. Despite the less melancholy second section, Peaceful Rest With Verdant Shade, Handel maintains an overall air of tragedy til the end.

Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – as ever – provide keen and alert accompaniment throughout and as I have mentioned above, show incredible restraint is shown in terms of ornamentation of the reprised da capo sections. It has been suggested to me that this is due to the fact that the selections are from oratorios and a nod to the less secular content of the music itself. However I don’t buy into this considering that Baroque and early Classical composers as whole imported their operatic mannerisms wholesale into ecclesiastical music as a whole.

Without a doubt, Stream of Pleasure is a superlative disc. The quality of the performances cannot be faulted and both Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux do not disappoint in the high standard of their musicianship. However, when I return to this disc – which I will do often – I have a feeling that I will be programming my selection in advance to provide myself with a bespoke, shorter and ultimately more satisfying listen.

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