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Christopher Purves: Handel’s Finest Arias for Base Voice, Vol. 2 

CD Button Arcangelo, Cohen. Hyperion CDA68152

Recordings Christopher Purves Cover 1018
Critics Choice Button 1015

ANYONE WHO KNOWS Christopher Purves solely from his memorably creepy creation of the Protector in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin—or his slightly-less-creepy creation of Walt Disney in Philip Glass’s Perfect American—might think of him as an exponent only of new opera. But he sings just about anything, including Handel’s Saul, Wagner’s Alberich and Debussy’s Golaud—and, according to the CD booklet, he used to sing in the rock group Harvey and the Wallbangers. He’s back to Handel for this release, a sequel to a 2012 album.

The conductor and orchestra are fluent in Baroque style, but, as might be expected from a singer whose repertoire is so varied, Purves doesn’t go deep into performance practice. Mostly, he sings the way that he sings—quite enjoyably. Listening to him in the maritime aria “When storms the proud to terrors doom,” from Athalia, one gets the impression that he would sing much the same way if he were in H.M.S. Pinafore or Billy Budd. The final track, “Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain,” is done in a way that might be mistaken for Vaughan Williams. Certainly, Purves’s voice provides a lot of pleasure. He’s as attentive to adjustments of vowel sounds in English (particularly in “How art thou fall’n from thy height!,” from Esther) as he is in Italian. And he revels in the many low notes required in this repertoire, in particular the cantata Nell’africane selve, in which he makes a meal out of the growly tones that portray wild beasts.

As ever with the Hyperion label, the programming is consistently of interest. That “African” cantata is a welcome rarity, and there’s a setting of the Metastasio text, “Gelido in ogni vena” (with some tweaks), made famous by Cecilia Bartoli in Vivaldi’s setting, from Farnace. The “Handel” concept is stretched a little by the inclusion of “E ver che all’amo intorno,” an aria by Porpora inserted into a pastiche opera performed by Handel’s own company, but it’s fantastically performed by all concerned. Metastasio’s clever, insinuating text proposes fishing as a metaphor for flirting, with the playful solo bassoon acting as an elusive but ultimately cooperative fish. Purves sings it with sunshine in his voice. Baroque music is not best known for making one laugh out loud, but this performance does it. Most impressive of all, Purves often gives an actor’s performance, internalizing the underlying motivations for Handel’s many repetitions of text and music. 

Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo offers an orchestral piece on its own, dispatching a Concerto Grosso with great flair. This project is similar to a Hyperion recording of arias for Guadagni by Cohen and Arcangelo (with Iestyn Davies) that has never left the side of my CD player, because I return to it so often with pleasure. Purves’s recording seems likely to join it.  —William R. Braun 

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