GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Total Eclipse: Music for Handel’s Tenor — Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra; Stephen Stubbs, lute, guitar, and conductor [Recorded in St. Thomas Chapel, Kenmore, Washington, USA, 21 – 24 February 2017; Naxos 8.573914; 1 CD, 68:00; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
It is impossible to discern precisely when the cult of celebrity in the modern sense first welcomed singers into the coven of social sorcery. Both the mythological Orpheus and the biblical David can be said to be early examples of musicians whose abilities to utilize their prodigious gifts to literally and symbolically influence others’ actions and perceptions spurred analysis, emulation, and adulation. Whether societal lionization of legendary musicians originated in antiquity with figures like Orpheus and David or is a more recent phenomenon, history documents that, by the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, some of the most widely-acclaimed figures in Western culture were musical artists. Aside from military leaders, monarchs, and saints, few people were as universally idolized in previous eras as the castrati Carlo Broschi and Francesco Bernardi, familiar throughout Europe as Farinelli and Senesino, were in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Their notoriety among their contemporaries was perhaps rivaled only by appreciation of Voltaire, Goethe, and George Washington. Neither Johann Sebastian Bach nor Georg Friedrich Händel was as famous in his lifetime as Farinelli and Senesino were in theirs, and not even the extraordinary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now virtually worshiped, enjoyed the respect and adoration that Farinelli and Senesino commanded.
In a broad sense, opera was more of an entertainment for the wealthy and privileged in the Eighteenth Century than it is in today’s pay-to-play society. Public theaters were uncommon, and aristocratic patronage was a critical component of the success of any musical endeavor. In London, the rival opera companies operated by Händel and his detractors respectively relied upon the financial backing of the royal family and a consortium of noblemen whose efforts were governed at least as much by politics as by art. It was battle between factions that brought Senesino and Farinelli to London, the former initially committed to Händel’s Royal Academy of Music and the latter seeking to bolster his former tutor Nicola Porpora’s leadership of the Opera of the Nobility. During the course of Händel’s half-century career in London, he endured more betrayals and shifting alliances than there are in the plots of his operas. He recognized, respected, and rewarded loyalty, however, and few singers have been more loyal to a composer and his work than English tenor John Beard was to Händel. Though not as known beyond Britain as his higher-voiced counterparts, Beard served Händel with devotion that inspired some of the composer’s finest music.
The infamously cantankerous Händel would perhaps have rejected the notion of Beard being a muse for him, but their artistic partnership was a prototype for the beneficial relationships between Rossini and Adolphe Nourrit, Bellini and Giovanni Battista Rubini, and Britten and Sir Peter Pears. Variously reported as having been born in 1716 or 1717, Beard first worked with Händel in the winter of 1734, when, still an adolescent, he appeared alongside another of the Eighteenth Century’s star castrati, Carestini, and the widely-fêted dancer Marie Sallé in the second revival of Il pastor fido. This launched a collaboration that continued until Händel’s death in 1759, encompassing Beard’s creation of rôles in several of the composer’s operas, including Lurcanio in Ariodante, Oronte in Alcina, and Vitaliano in Giustino.
In 1735, Beard interpreted the part of Mathan in the first London performance of Händel’s 1733 oratorio Athalia. This provided Händel with a new channel for his creativity: challenging the convention of assigning heroic male rôles to castrati, he devised the heroes in several of his English oratorios as tenor parts. In the next two decades, Beard originated the title rôles in Samson, Belshazzar, Jephtha, and Judas Maccabaeus, as well as Jonathan in Saul, Simeon and Judah in Joseph and his Brethren, the tenor solos in Israel in Egypt, and Jupiter in Semele. As this wonderful homage from tenor Aaron Sheehan, Pacific MusicWorks, conductor Stephen Stubbs, and Naxos proclaims, Beard was indeed ‘Händel’s tenor.’ Senesino’s musical legacy has been extensively explored on recordings: this disc reveals that Beard’s artistry is no less deserving of commemoration.
Seattle has long been rightly celebrated as America’s Bayreuth, Seattle Opera’s enterprising Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival having nurtured an association between metropolitan Seattle and the operas of Richard Wagner that continues today. The initiatives of Pacific MusicWorks are now giving the Emerald City a presence in the global historically-informed Early Music community that rivals its Wagnerian prominence. Under the direction of Stubbs, an eminent scholar and advocate of period-appropriate performance practices, Pacific MusicWorks’ musicians display technical and stylistic prowess worthy of comparison with the work of the most proficient period-instrument ensembles. Stubbs’s wonderfully alert, communicative playing of lute and guitar provides the pulse of each piece, creating a compelling dialogue with keyboard virtuoso Adam Pearl, whose mastery of the art of inventive but unobtrusive realization of the continuo is apparent in every moment of his performance. Stubbs’s pacing of each of the pieces performed on this disc is guided by palpable understanding of and affection for the music, his fluency in Händel’s musical language disclosing how modern authenticity can sound.
The superlative caliber of the orchestra’s collective musicianship is demonstrated in performances of two of Händel’s Concerti grossi, both of them in B♭ major. The contrasts of forms, tempi, and dynamics among the movements of the concerti are exceptionally evident in these performances, but thematic links are also elucidated. The Vivace that introduces the HWV 313 Concerto is played with a level of energy that risks sloppiness, but tidiness of ensemble is an aspect of the orchestra’s virtuosity. The subsequent Largo is a tranquil sigh before the frenzy of the Allegro. The Minuet and Gavotte are here recognizably dances, their rhythms taut but elastic. HWV 325 opens with a Largo, played with gravitas befitting a performance of a Bach prelude, and the Allegro that follows is exciting but controlled. HWV 325’s Largo e piano movement is another temporary shelter from Händel’s musical tempest, and the Pacific MusicWorks instrumentalists perform it serenely. Stubbs reminds the listener that Andante in the Eighteenth Century was not the plodding speed that it became in the next century, and the Hornpipe’s rustic charm is enhanced by the spirit with which it is played.
John Beard’s voice was characterized by contemporary observers including the much-quoted Charles Burney as being more powerful than pretty—a description that cannot be employed in an assessment of Aaron Sheehan’s voice. As he has affirmed on previous recordings, a gem among which is his account with Stubbs of Händel’s Acis and Galatea [reviewed here], the younger tenor’s voice is a superbly-trained instrument in which tonal beauty and flexibility are supported by reserves of strength powered by projection rather than volume. This blend of finesse and fortitude lends Sheehan’s singing of music from Part Two of Alexander’s Feast (HWV 75) the sort of dramatic vitality that Händel likely received from Beard. Sheehan’s traversals of the recitative ‘Give the vengeance due’ and aria ‘The princes applaud with a furious joy,’ the former presented as an integral extension of the latter, are never overwrought, however: he identifies the moods of the music and text and makes them audible on an appropriate scale. The poetic integrity of the tenor’s handling of words gives his accounts of Moses’s song from Part Three of Israel in Egypt (HWV 54), ‘The enemy said, I will pursue,’ and the aria ‘Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs’ from Händel’s setting of John Dryden’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (HWV 76) unusual psychological depth. Meeting the demands of Händel’s vocal writing typically consumes singers’ resources, but the abundance of this singer’s technical wherewithal enables him to explore textual subtleties without jeopardizing musical adroitness.
Sheehan recently sang Jonathan in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s San Francisco-area performances of Händel’s Saul (HWV 53), and he samples that rôle on this disc with some of the character’s most poignant music. The accompagnato ‘O filial piety!’ and air ‘No, cruel father, no!’ in Act One constitute one of Händel’s most emotionally powerful scenes, and Sheehan delivers the music with expressive expertise worthy of but wholly different from opera. Moving into the oratorio’s second act, he phrases the recitative ‘Ah, dearest friend’ with both tenacity and tenderness, and the eloquence with which he voices the air ‘But sooner Jordan’s stream’ creates a moving vignette of Jonathan’s fateful nobility. In some performances of Händel’s oratorios, it seems that the musical idiom—or, rather, fear of it—is an obstacle that separates singers from the emotions of the characters whom they are portraying or describing. Wholly comfortable with Eighteenth-Century modes of expression, Sheehan affirms that this is music to be felt, not merely sung.
Messiah (HWV 56) requires neither introduction nor espousal by accomplished singers, but singing of the quality brought by Sheehan to his performance of the tenor soloist’s sequence from Part Two of the oratorio is invaluable in any context. There is no artifice in his articulations of the recitative ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ or the affecting arioso ‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow.’ Händel famously wrote that, with Messiah, he aimed not solely to entertain listeners but also to enlighten and improve them. Performances of Messiah are so frequent that its emotional potency is easily neglected, especially by singers whose acceptance of invitations to sing the piece is motivated solely by the prospect of collecting a fee. As Sheehan’s readings of the very different but equally effective arias ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ and ‘Thou shalt break them’ intimates, the words of Messiah are Christian, but its themes of redemption through suffering, faith, and righteousness are universal. Musically, these selections from Messiah are sung marvelously. Ever tasteful, Sheehan’s ornaments are derived not from the singer’s ego but from the temperament of the music. As an English-speaking singer with special affinity for Händel’s music, Sheehan has perhaps participated in too many performances of Messiah to number, but he sings the excerpts on this disc with the immediacy of new discovery.
On 3 and 4 May 2019, Sheehan will sing the title rôle in Pacific MusicWorks’ performances of Händel’s Samson, and his performances of music from that score on Total Eclipse offer a gratifying preview of his portrayal of one of the most iconic biblical heroes. His singing of three airs from the oratorio’s first act establishes Samson as a charismatic man whose physical brawn masks spiritual vulnerability. The skill with which the tenor evokes turmoil without abusing the vocal line in the air ‘Torments, alas, are not confin’d’ is indicative of the essence of his artistry: not even the most ravishing sounds are acceptable if they do not echo the sentiments of the words that they enunciate. It is from the air ‘Total eclipse!’ that the title for this disc was taken, and it proves to be a wise choice. The piece is voiced with carefully-managed intensity that demonstrates how Beard eclipsed other tenors with whom Händel worked and how few modern interpreters of this music are capable of emerging from Sheehan’s shadow. The recitative ‘My griefs for this’ and air ‘Why does the God of Israel sleep?’ are delivered with sincerity and expressivity that overwhelm the listener but not the music. On records, at least, with a voice that was far larger, Jon Vickers was a Samson who sounded markedly smaller of emotional stature than the flawed but fervent man brought to life by Sheehan.
In the performance on this disc, the Act Two air ‘Your charms to ruin led the way’ is intriguingly introspective, Samson’s recriminations for his surrender to temptation addressed to his own weakness. An atmosphere of heightened self-cognizance also permeates the recitative ‘Let but that spirit’ and air ‘Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed’ from the oratorio’s third act, Sheehan’s vocalism touchingly imparting the character’s conflicting weariness and renewed hope. As assured in descents below the stave as in passages at the top of the range, Sheehan sings this music with confidence that does not beget complacency. There are occasional moments of toil in bravura passages, in which the tenor’s breath control unfailingly impresses, but the performances on this disc suggest that, in this repertory, effortlessness pales in comparison with earnestness.
The concept of opportunism is now marred by a pervasive pejorative connotation, but Händel indisputably made a virtue of seizing opportunities. With the music that he composed for John Beard, Händel capitalized on the opportunity of having at his disposal an artist whose musical and theatrical sensibilities paralleled his own. In the Twenty-First Century, the precarious state of funding for Arts projects leaves many opportunities unrealized. That Pacific MusicWorks’ goal of recording Aaron Sheehan’s performances of music that he was born to sing came to fruition is a triumph of planning that would have delighted Händel. Opportunism may be semantically unsavory, but, on Total Eclipse, it sounds spectacular.