~HWV 18~

Parnassus Records 96038/40
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 1970
Reissued in 2002

Tamerlano: Gwendolyn Killebrew, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Young, tenor
Sophia Steffan, mezzo-soprano
Joanna Simon, mezzo-soprano
Carole Bogard, soprano
Marinus Rintzler, bass

The Chamber Orchestra of Copenhagen (on modern instruments)
John Moriarty, conductor




Tamerlano is usually considered as one of Handel’s masterworks composed for the Royal Academy of Music, and was created in 1724, only a few months after Giulio Cesare in Egitto and before Rodelinda, regina de’Longobardi. But Tamerlano is quite different from the two others and in fact quite an exceptional work. Here there is no struggle for power, but instead a harsh psychological struggle between two very proud people, the vanquished Bajazet and his haughty conqueror Tamerlano. Bajazet finally finds the way to a sort of victory by committing suicide, and the traditional “lieto fine” (i.e. happy ending) of the opera seria – a catharsis based on the clemency of the sovereign – is here more ambiguous than in many other Handel operas. From a musical point of view, Handel’s approach is particularly dramatic and the tenor role of Bajazet is of notable importance.

Made in 1970, this was allegedly the first recording of a Handel opera with the continuo played by a harpsichord and a cello, and with all the roles sung at their original pitch. Thus its first release on CD is particularly welcome. Yet more than thirty years later, the orchestra sounds very industrious but quite old-fashioned, with particularly slow tempos – the overture sounds so torpid! The vocal performances are less dated, and, despite often being erratic, all singers contribute some good or excellent moments. The characterization is convincing and there are some interesting variations. Gwendolyn Killebrew is a satisfying Tamerlano, and her “A dispetto” is really good, even if she seems to try to make her voice sound more like a contralto than it naturally seems. Alexander Young’s renowned performance is very dense and dramatic indeed, but his singing is not really close to baroque style. Carole Bogard is quite charming and sometimes moving, although the role of Asteria seems to have overwhelmed her powers, and she tends to compensate by overacting and sounds a bit affected. Though not exceptional, Sophia Steffan’s performance is regular.

The whole performance is simultaneously interesting and monotonous, particularly until the middle of the second act. It sounds a little as if the interpreters were too conscious of the historical importance of their performance. Thirty years later, Tamerlano is still definitely waiting for the version it truly deserves, all the more so because the best recording yet, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, is no longer widely available.

© Philippe Gelinaud -November 2002

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