“A Royal Trio” = Works of Handel, Ariosti & Bononcini for countertenor – Lawrence Zazzo/ La Nuova Musica – Harmonia mundi

“A Royal Trio” = ARIOSTI: Spirate, o iniqui marmi…Voi d’un figlio tanto misero (from Coriolano); Freme l’onda (from Il naufragio vicino); Vespasiano: Overture; BONONCINI: Così stanco Pellegrino (from Crispo); Per la gloria d’adorarvi (from Griselda); Tigre piagata (from Muzio Scevola); HANDEL: Admeto: Ballo di Larve; Orride larve … Chiudetevi, miei lumi (from Admeto); Admeto: Sinfonia I; Admeto: Sinfonia II; Flavio Air Rompo i lacci; Va tacito e nascosto (from Giulio Cesare); Tanti affanni (from Ottone); Vivi, tiranno, io t’ho scampato (from Rodelinda) – Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor/ La Nuova Musica/ David Bates – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HUM 807590, 78:05 ****:

The countertenor rush continues. I honestly don’t know what is spurring it on—is it the public demanding more of them, the record companies jumping on the latest bandwagon, or simply because their technical facility has moved miles and miles beyond what it was 40 years ago? The fact that the voice sounds like a weak mezzo-soprano is something that personally I have a lot of difficulty with, and they are now assuming roles that one can legitimately ask whether the composers being recorded would have agreed with. The genre of course came from the use of male altos in church choirs (women were forbidden from singing) and gradually began to take more prominent roles in the late seventeenth century, so as a whole the art form is relatively new from a soloist standpoint. When the castrati migrated from Italy, the countertenors practically disappeared from public notice except, once again, in oratorios and other church-type works. The weakness of the voices in the modern era of large halls and phenomenally big orchestras relegated them to the musical junk heap of history.

Until Alfred Deller, that is. Deller’s Consort spurred a revival of interest in the voice type and caused some composers, like Benjamin Britten, to write for it. But even here the voice remained a curiosity, and its timbre put off many listeners. But when the period instrument movement began having real impact countertenors began their ascendency, so that now there are a slew of very remarkable performers working today, among whom Lawrence Zazzo is certainly one, though there is little indication from an historicist point of view that the repertory current sung from the olden years was ever performed by countertenors with any consistency, and some not at all. So when we see albums like the one under review, it is important to realize that this is not necessarily a “historically correct” recording, and a lot of suppositions are in play.

That said, and with the above caveats about voice type firmly in mind, you really can’t fault Zazzo’s technique or musicianship in any way. This program, curiously, has nothing to do with a countertenor, but instead mainly with the famous castrato Senesino, the rage in Europe at the time and from all accounts quite extraordinary in his emotional and vocal abilities. The Royal Academy of Music was founded in 1719 through the auspices of 72 well-to-do British aristocrats desirous of appointing the best composers possible for what turned out to be nine excellent seasons before problems set in and many of the singers returned to their homelands. In the meanwhile, Handel, Giovanni Bononcini, and Attilio Ariosti provided the entertainment that at times rumored to set the composers against one another as intense rivals, though the true extent of this particular reality remains unknown. But Handel, though he didn’t compose the most popular music during this time, was indeed the acknowledged anchor of the project, by the British public at least. Here we get extended selections from operas by all three of these men, a “Royal Trio” indeed, and though Zazzo can’t match the power of Senesino, this doesn’t stop him from giving committed and dramatically excellent renditions of these roles. The surround sound is outstanding, and the production values rank with Harmonia mundi’s best, which is always considerable.

—Steven Ritter

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