Handel Goes Wild – L’Arpeggiata, dir. Christina Pluhar — Erato 019295811693, 75:33, **** (9/30/17)
(Valer Sabaus, countertenor, Nuria Rial, soprano, Gianluigi Trovesi, clarinet, Boris Schmidt, double bass, Francesco Turrisi, piano, Dorn David Sherwin, cornetto)
Soon I will be at Carnegie Hall to see L’Arpeggiata again. “What kind of group is that?” a friend asked. That’s where I pause. Putting your finger on just what L’Arpeggiata is poses a challenge.
“They play baroque music,” I start. I get a nod in return. “But they do it in their own unique way…”
Then I load a YouTube video, and now my friend nods, smiling. “Good stuff!” Then the conversation moves to “what kind of music is that?” Ah, well…
The piano and jazz clarinet that both play roles in this release of Handel wasn’t part of Christina Pluhar’s ensemble when it was founded. I felt the ensemble went into new territory with their release of Music for A While, featuring the music of Henry Purcell. In my own opinion, it has been their most successful release (and it did include both piano and clarinet). It’s a modern take on Purcell, for sure, but the creativity and arrangements just worked. It was a magical recording. Hearing the ensemble play these numbers a couple years ago live became one of my personal highlights for a live music experience. It was so good, I left in tears.
Part of the Arpeggiata formula is a regular cast of personalities, a jazz bassist who fits neatly in with baroque theorbos, guitars, and lutes; a passionate violinist, a versatile cornettist, and a cast of first-rate singers, including Philippe Jaroussky, Nuria Rial, and Vincenzo Capezuto. Add to that ensemble a sensitive percussion complement, including a psaltry. The ensemble varies itself based on the repertoire, but more often than not, the music comes to L’Arpeggiata, rather than the other way around.
This time around, however, there were fewer hits. The jazzy arrangements of Purcell seemed to be well integrated. In this release, the numbers many times are performed by two “choirs,” a nod back to the sonatas of Gabrieli, or Renaissance choral traditions between doubled choirs of singers.
In an instrumental arrangement, Lascia ch’io pianga, a tantalizing opening on baroque lute is then followed by solo piano. The two worlds then collide in the next stanza.
In the arrangement of the Sinfonia for the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, the baroque choir starts. Next the “jazz” ensemble takes the stage. The back and forth continues. Instead of adopting one single “style” for the piece, they interchange an almost sappy jazz style with an underpowered one with baroque instruments. I miss the full-orchestra bustle that makes this piece memorable.
The closing number is one of Handel’s more famous pieces, especially so for countertenors, Ombra mai fu from Serse, HWV 40. It opens with baroque instruments, then the cornetto takes over with the ethereal piano tinkling along. Doron David Sherwin is an excellent cornetto player, and a mainstay in the L’Arpeggiata ensemble. He takes the first stanza himself, which is historically appropriate, as accounts from the early baroque claimed the cornetto was the instrument closest in sound to the human voice. The piece is closed by Valer Sabadus, a young and rising countertenor, and one of the two featured singers in this release. He does an admirable job, but lacks the polish of Philippe Jaroussky.
The other methodology used, as in Mi lusinga il dolce affetto, HWV 34, is a more straightforward historical performance, using the “baroque” choir of authentic instruments. It’s tasteful music, for sure, and slightly more luxurious, say, than the presentation from a recording of the full opera. But it betrays the album’s title, Handel Goes Wild.
Two pieces are not by Handel at all. The group does some improvisation on a Vivaldi concerto, RV 157, which is highly successful. Their second piece, improvisations on Kapsberger, is less successful. It’s the type of arrangement that might make an interesting concert encore, but I’ll be removing that one from the playback routine on my system.
Is it wildness, then, that describes the more modern instrumentarium? The sound of a music box opens the delicious aria O sleep, why dost thou leave me, with plucked string bass, piano, and appropriate percussion. It stays placed there in one sound world. I think that approach is far more successful, but nothing is particularly “wild” about it. It’s a very tasteful, modern interpretation that doesn’t betray the character of the text.
My favorite numbers from this release, particularly strong from all fronts, are the second, fourth, and eighth tracks. The second track comes from Handel’s Rinaldo, Venti, turbini. The sound of a wind machine (historical, yes) precedes percussion and bass leading us into a rather fun violin line. The clarinet takes over, but the bass and percussion are omnipresent. This works, I think, because the two “ensembles” are combined here. It’s also an infectious piece, let’s be clear, which puts some credit on Handel. This luxurious opening leads to a show-stopping aria for countertenor Valer Sabadus. His carrying power works here with a small ensemble. When the percussion comes in, it adds some spice to the ensemble. Heat, maybe, not wildness.
The Vivaldi arrangement on track four opens with the jazz-side of L’Arpeggiata. It’s an almost Arabian-sounding slow opening that gives way to string bass and piano with the Allegro. You might not even fathom it’s Vivaldian. But his harmony is there and the musicians are on the top of their game. This is first-class music making. When the baroque guitar comes in, it makes a wonderful segue for the Vivaldian violins to appear. It’s another example of the two sides of L’Arpeggiata. They were smart to transition back to the jazz side toward the end, but the tastier bits were when they two sides were together.
Finally, the eighth track, Pena tiranna, is performed with an absolutely delicious opening featuring two solo instruments. Clearly one is the clarinet we’ve heard. But the other? Is that soprano saxophone? No! It’s what L’Apreggiata does so well, blending old and new. It’s a duet for cornetto and clarinet! It’s so well done you have to break down and smile. The baroque ensemble, with strings, follows, and leads to a more or less traditional presentation by Sabadus. The jazz ensemble comes in to close the number, smartly combined with Sabadus. Another example of excellence. This piece satisfies.
Christina Pluhar has great taste. She brings great musicians together with great music. And of course, if you’ve liked their past collections, you’re likely to find something very appetizing in this release as well. But the approach here, made even more ridiculous with an album cover of a “Handel” and a wild stallion, challenges me. I found that the pieces where the ensemble is more tightly integrated were more successful. And my appetite was whet too for some more instrumental arrangements; the introductions to arias that combined the jazz and written-out lines so well could have been explored with Handel’s chamber sonatas or concerti grossi. But L’Arpeggiata’s tradition is in vocal music. The solutions on how to modernize Handel, for me, were less focused than some of their earlier efforts. That said, I warmly recommend the release. For when they do it right, it’s done so well. And they are the best examples of what L’Arpeggiata is: open-minded, talented musicians, taking the aesthetic of a bygone era and tastefully extending it into the modern age. I’d advocate that doing so is unnecessary, but the some of these results are too successful to ignore. And just maybe, when you play a track or two for a non-classical fan, they just might say, “whoa, that was wild.”