Acis and Galatea
~ HWV 49a ~

DG/Archiv 423 406-2
Recorded in 1978.
Released in 1978.

DG/Archiv Blue 474 225-2
2 CDs
budget price
Reissued in 2003.

Galatea: Norma Borrowes
Acis: Anthony Rolfe-Johnson
Damon: Martyn Hill
Polyphemus: Willard White

The English Baroque Soloists (on period instruments)
Direcor: John Eliot Gardiner





What a breath of fresh air. This is a crucial Handel recording — listening to it is to be reminded of the revelation that was ‘authenticity’ 25 years ago. Its success lies squarely in John Eliot Gardiner's profound understanding of what makes this imperishable masterpiece 'tick'. You will find no grotesque decoration by singers or orchestra, no intrusive emphasis on the conductor’s ‘personality’, and no part of the continuo masquerading as an obbligato instrument. By reissuing this disc, Archiv has shown how future Handel performance should be founded on an appreciation of past achievements, particularly this one.

The opening movement is brisk, sweeping us into the world of shepherds and lambkins. But there is something decidedly human about Gardiner's vernal twosome. As sung here (and these are not negative comments) Acis is an unattractive character, and Galatea’s affections lack persuasive force. The upshot, and what a revelation this is, is that Polyphemus becomes wholly sympathetic, which is a wonderfully original idea, and perhaps is exactly what Handel and John Gay, the poet, intended. Which one-eyed monster with human sensibilities would not become enraged when his heartfelt plea, 'Cease to Beauty to be suing', is cruelly condemned as "hideous Love"? The earnest urgency that Willard White imparts to this air alone marks out Gardiner’s recording as something very special indeed. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson's Acis is unkind and spiteful — note the lack of hurry in his 'Love sounds the Alarm'. The doomed insipidity in the lovers’ duet left me breathless with admiration for the conductor, singers and instrumentalists (and the composer). This is ensemble playing of the highest order.

The essentially chamber-music quality of Acis and Galatea always entrances, but here it is rescued from bloated interpretation. The one-singer-a-part chorus, the two high tenor shepherd commentators, and the thin orchestral line sound exactly right. The choruses breathe with a lightness of touch, and there is luminosity in the combination of music, singing and playing that is inspirational. To make Polyphemus seem genuinely in love with Galatea is no simple accomplishment, and White’s performance is triumphant. The motive of all the characters is laid bare on these discs. What could have been bland turns into a drama of unrequited, spurned devotion that unleashes dangerously uncontrolled passions. The conventional and insensitive heroics of Acis contrast admirably with the blunt, naïve, but sincere protestations of love by Polyphemus. Norma Burrowes's Galatea simpers mellifluously, a lovely sound that is strong but never strident.

This outstanding performance ends as if disappearing into immortality. Wonderful. It is a must-have recording. No idiosyncratic conducting and no strummers.


© Les Robarts - July 2003

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