Those of us who were lucky enough to hear the live performance of much of the material on this disc as part of the London Handel Festival this year, will be delighted to be able to listen again, and the CD, with a slightly augmented instrumental ensemble (which includes a larger wind section) reproduces well a great deal of the drive and subtle nuance of these opera arias that came across at the concert at St George’s, Hanover Square.
The mezzo Giuseppina Bridelli has a glorious voice which maintains its richness throughout its range, but can exert solid power when needed (such as in Handel’s ‘Quando piomba improvvisa saette’ from Catone in Utica or Porpora’s ‘A questa man verrà’ from Calcante e Achille) or take on a breathy pleading quality for the less bravura arias on the disc, such as Handel’s ‘Stille amare, già vi sento’ (Tolomeo).
Franck-Emmanuel Comte’s direction throughout is precise and sensitive to the nuances needed for the extracts, which makes for an album of nicely contrasted pieces that are not all – as the title suggests – busy and combative, but which sometimes portray (for example Porpora’s ‘Fu del bracchio onnipotente’ from David e Berseba) the more sinuously covert moves in the battle for love.
The instrumental playing throughout is of the extremely high standard that Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu always produce, and it’s full of the delicious changes in timbre that baroque ensembles aim for these days, aided and abetted by some superlative harpsichord continuo work by Comte. The inclusion of a brace of horns in ‘Sta nell’ircana pietrosa tana’ (Handel’s Alcina) is a pleasant surprise, and makes a suitably dramatic opening to the disc. Sadly, ‘Alto Giove’ (from Porpora’s Polifemo) isn’t here, as in the live performance, this was certainly the star of the show, its plaintive nature allowing both Bridelli and the ensemble to bring out the best of their subtle dynamic depictions.
The recording is generally well done, and certainly has a slick sound to it, but comparison with the live performance is inevitable. The engineers have produced a sound that still allows for changes in dynamic and timbre (the exciting punches of the baroque guitar, for example, are still present in ‘Quando piomba’), and the recording has enabled some better balancing between voice and ensemble, such that Bridelli’s slightly underpowered chest-voice in the low, busy passages, is compensated for. Alas, though, one yearns for the rawer texture of the live performance in which there seemed to be more drama and emotion. The instrumental pieces still shine in this respect – so the contrasts between the different dreams in the suite from Handel’s Ariodante are still sharp-edged – but there can be a slightly over-engineered flatness to the orchestral sound when the recording is balanced to bring Bridelli’s voice to the fore. The bassoon in Handel’s ‘Scherza infida’ (Ariodante) which, in the live performance became a second soloist, winding itself around Bridelli’s lines, is still there, but it almost disappears into the instrumental texture, and the little swells and diminuendi that gave the live performance of Porpora’s ‘Il gioir qualor s’aspetta’ (Polifemo) such buzz and intensity feel a tad damped.
Notwithstanding this, Duel makes a resplendent addition to any collection of baroque recordings, and represents a winning combination of a superb and attractive voice and a top-notch ensemble.