~HWV 18~

Avie AV0001
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in June 2001.*
Released in 2002.

Bajazet: Thomas Randle, tenor
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, soprano
Graham Pushee, countertenor
Monica Bacelli, contralto
Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano
Antonio Abete, bass

The English Concert (on period instruments)
Directed from the harpsichord by Trevor Pinnock




(For Philippe Gelinaud's review of the Arthaus Musik DVD recording, click here.)

Handel’s intense tragedy Tamerlano was first produced at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in London on 31st October 1724, yet Handel had commenced composing the score much earlier on 3rd July 1724. This unusually long digestion period allowed Handel to make substantial alterations to his autograph manuscript, especially after the tenor Borosini arrived from Italy, bringing with him some good ideas about the role of Bajazet (the central character of the opera, and without doubt Handel’s greatest operatic tenor role). Therefore Tamerlano has an exceptionally complicated composition process, and there are at least three distinct and definitive versions:

  1. The completed first draft that can be constructed from Handel’s autograph manuscript completed on 24th July 1724. This features several musically engaging numbers at the end of the opera that function as a conventional lieto fine (i.e. “happy ending”) such as a unique example of a castrato duet, and locates Asteria’s aria “Cor di Padre” at the end of Act II.
  2. Handel’s extensive revision that was actually performed in October 1724, as contained in insertions and alterations in the autograph, Handel’s conducting score, and the original London printed libretto. This featured an expanded role for Bajazet, and a condensed ending to Act III that has greater dramatic realism and bitterness. Asteria’s “Cor di Padre” is relocated to the opening of Act III where it gains enhanced poignancy. The relatively happy end of Act II is instead completed by Asteria’s new aria “Se potessi”.
  3. In 1731 Handel revived the opera, but shorted many recitatives. The minor bass role Leone was sung by the exceptional Montagnana in 1731, so Handel inserted the splendid aria “Nel mondo e nell’abisso” for him.

The most artistically satisfying scheme for Tamerlano is certainly the version prepared for the first performances. Handel’s decisions about Tamerlano made between July and October 1724 all demonstrate an awareness of the dramatic power of the tragedy. His decision to omit some fine music from the last few scenes demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice superficial entertainment value of the music for the benefit of the artistic quality of the opera. It is therefore to be regretted that not one of the several recordings of this magnificent opera manages to accurately represent Handel’s intentions. Of the recordings previously available on CD, Malgoire’s idiosyncratic understanding of the sources resulted in extensive cuts and several misplaced items, and Gardiner’s persuasive performance is based on a convoluted inauthentic mixture of versions that attempts to present almost all the music of the autograph and first performance versions.

This new recording by Trevor Pinnock is as musically and dramatically convincing as any previous version, although an initially harsh verdict is that it is a wasted opportunity due its minimal advance of our understanding of the opera as Handel intended it to be heard. Handelians will have wanted a complete October 1724 version, and, once again, have been frustrated: the 1731 bass aria for Leone is included, “Cor di Padre” is located at the end of Act II as it was in only Handel’s first draft, and several long recitatives are also shortened following examples in Handel’s conducting score (a perfectly reasonable approach to live performance in the modern theatre, providing you are worried about union rates rather than patronising the level of interest from your audience).

Any potential confusion about Tamerlano had already been irrevocably clarified by the research of Terence Best, who provides the excellent booklet essay for this CD. Furthermore, Pinnock used Best’s entirely reliable edition of the score. Yet either Pinnock or Miller decided not to follow any authentic version by Handel 100%, due to reasons that one must charitably assume are practical requirements beyond their artistic control. Perhaps such reasons might be condoned under less than ideal circumstances: live recordings cannot last much over 3 hours without costing the orchestra a fortune in wages for the players. Also, the opera houses where Miller’s production was performed in June 2001 all believe that operas organised by their librettist and composer into 3 acts should only have one interval in the middle of Act II. In addition to this, in a radio documentary broadcast in association with this performance, director Jonathan Miller proudly announced his refusal to learn how to study music scores when he can use CDs instead when preparing his staging. This explains a lot about the mildly erroneous musicological decisions that have been made.

Yet some listeners may not be interested in looking for a faithful representation of one of Handel’s most brilliant creations as a dramatist, and the good news is that Pinnock’s performance is generally a positive and predictably sensible yet rich musical experience. The tenor Thomas Randle has recorded plenty of Handel before, but seems better cast as Bajazet than any of his previous roles. His strong chest voice and enthusiasm for the sentiments of the Italian text result in some exceptionally pleasing moments, such as his climactic aria “Empio, per farti guerra”, and a phenomenal suicide scene in which he has taken poison in order to escape Tamerlano’s relentless tyranny, and consoles his distraught daughter Asteria (Miller also observes the stage directions in the original libretto and has Bajazet die offstage after his exit - characters actually dying on stage is a trait of nineteenth century opera, and does not belong in opera seria).

The other great performances in this performance of Tamerlano are unfortunately the less prominent dramatic roles, such as Anna Bonatatibus’ lyrical Irene and Antonio Abete's assertive Leone. Graham Pushee provides some sensitive interpretative musicianship as Andronico, but does not always have the intonation or depth of expression to make his contribution first class. Monica Bacelli’s performance as the titular tyrant is vocally efficient but lacks the requisite personality, and Norberg-Schulz’s Asteria is competent without being sufficiently communicative. The biggest star of the performance is The English Concert, whose phrasing and textural colour are consistently perfectly judged and stylistically wise. Pinnock - largely by a sense of his absence and willingness to trust his players - allows Handel’s orchestral textures to flow completely free of gimmicks and shock or novelty value.

Like its predecessors, this is not the Tamerlano that Handel deserves. But it is an interesting and valuable contribution to the catalogue. One cannot help but be pleased that Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert are making recordings of large scale works again after an absence of too many years that has deprived us of their warm and intelligent musicianship. The new independent record label Avie must also be applauded for the excellence and quality of the booklet, packaging, and for their support of a recording project that has a refreshing lack of ego and conceit.

*Recorded during live performances of Jonathan Miller’s staged production at Sadler’s Wells, London. Available commercially -- or directly from The English Concert at at a discounted price.

© David Vickers - June 2002

Return to the G. F. Handel Home Page