The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757)
~ HWV 71 ~
Recorded in 1982.
Released in 1983.
Hyperion dyad CDD22050
Reissued in 2005.
Beauty: Gillian Fisher, soprano
Deceit: Emma Kirkby, soprano
Counsel, or Truth: Charles Brett, countertenor
Pleasure: Ian Partridge, tenor
Time: Stephen Varcoe, bass
The London Handel Choir
The London Handel Orchestra (on period instruments)
Roy Goodman, leader
Denys Darlow, conductor
Recorded in the St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
You can rely on any recording by Denys Darlow, and this Triumph is refreshingly dependable. He gives the work as (re)composed in 1757 (not the version that included several choruses from other oratorios, though Darlow cuts Deceit’s air, with horns, ‘Happy Beauty’). Triumph is a moral-decision ‘drama’, in which everything is strictly allegorical. Any excitement in the few moments of personal crisis rests wholly in the music, music which the composer clearly had some affection for, because he rehashed much of it three times across fifty years.
A meal reheated never tastes as appetizing as when freshly served, so to avoid any sense of staleness there is new music interspersed among old favourites, which sometimes get new string figurations. In 1757 new words were supplied by the ever-resourceful Thomas Morell. (Aside: One suspects that Morell and Handel worked more closely than has been allowed, Morell proposing schemes and ideas for the airs and choruses and suggesting where these might fit in a sequence.) Morell’s job was to cut down the detail and maximize what music had to do. Handel’s task was to breathe life into Morell’s stark Cynical debate between the allure of delusive and transient pleasures and the chill of actuality as we are reconciled to our mortality. There is no point looking for a plot, because there isn’t one. In this moral catwalk there are no numbers to lift you off your seat by display of the breathtakingly florid or the defiantly gutsy virility. Yet, wallowing as it does in the tensions between image and reality, the music sounds constantly fresh and enjoyable.
In their portrayal of a world of change and painful adjustment, composer and librettist focus on Beauty’s fantasy that she can delay her growing up. Pre-Christian moral codes get a Christian resolution. What in the world of opera would have been loss of innocence, in this oratorio becomes a denial of humankind’s sensual nature in favour of working with ‘forces’ beyond the self. This sober oratorio was recorded by Darlow for the first time many years ago, though this recording is recommended for its musical qualities and not its rarity.
Darlow makes each item lyrical and engaging. For instance, the air ‘Loathsome Urns’ has the hallmark Handel ingredients of rhythmic drive and melodic energy that have endeared his music to millions. Darlow’s direction is characterized by the steady propulsion of well-judged tempos, meaning that no item is too fast or too slow. While this may prove unexciting for some listeners, there is no excess.
However, there are some delightful moments of fresh air and fun. He who tires of the outdoor world of ‘Dryads, Sylvans’, with Partridge, Kirkby, chorus, horns and orchestra, is tired of life. Here is a sequence of choruses to lift us into a gorgeous sound world arguably not to be found anywhere else in the Baroque. It is all gloriously vacuous compared to Time’s brief serious sequence beginning ‘The Hand of Time’, ending with his neophytes’ solemn invocation, ‘Strengthen us, Oh Time’. With Morell and Handel’s broad brushstroke ‘characterization’, each soloist takes his or her turn, and the singing is in keeping with the restrained tone of the piece. There is crystal clear singing by Gillian Fisher as Beauty. Charles Brett, counter-tenor, plucks the short straw as the heavy moralist, Counsel, a role he sings in his unique timbre with considerable distinction. Stephen Varcoe’s light baritone Time makes its mark with clarity of diction. Deceit is the ever-youthful Emma Kirkby, singing so lithely and engagingly that who could fail to be convinced by her siren call? Ian Partridge shows what a fine Handelian he is: each note and word is made to mean something as he vividly wraps the music in ravishing beauty of tone. The mixed gender London Handel Choir may not conform to ‘historically informed practice’ (i.e. trebles) but it discharges its duties well, the sopranos blending in the overall choral sound. The London Handel Orchestra plays with verve its strong continuo line very effectively highlighting flippant skip and weighty menace.
The performance may lack time-stopping moments, but the final air should indisputably have been one. It has the big tune as Beauty faces up to reality. Handel ensures it is one of the most ineffably sad pieces he ever wrote, but here the oboe obbligato seems merely to ‘play’ the notes, and an opportunity to make an audience hold its breath is fluffed. There is no sense that Eden has been lost and innocence is no more. And then, for some reason, Handel interpolated a jaunty ‘Allelujah’ to end proceedings, one of the rare occurrences of Christian music in Handel getting the warm glow of horns, and which Darlow’s forces sing and play with conviction.In Triumph Morell grimly preaches the precept that moral freedom is liberation from desire. In response, Handel is often at his sparsest, harshest, and most uncompromising, either in getting our feet tapping or bringing us up short, that is, he doesn’t judge. Yet this oratorio is much more fun than these assessments promise, and there is unlikely to be a better recording on the market for some time.
© Les Robarts - February 2006
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