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Anthony Roth Costanzo: ARC 

CD Button Works by Handel and Glass. Les Violons du Roy, Cohen. Texts and translations. Decca B0028648-02

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THE IDEA OF A CD RECITAL that’s half Handel and half Philip Glass isn’t as odd as it sounds. For one thing, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has operatic experience with both. At the Met, he has sung Handel’s music in Rodelinda and in the pasticcio The Enchanted Island, and he is due there next season in the title role of Glass’s Akhnaten, which he has already sung at ENO and LA Opera. For another, he and conductor Jonathan Cohen have united the composers by employing the same orchestra, Les Violons du Roy, for the whole album. (They are not a period-instrument band, but the strings use replicas of period bows.) Above all, the selection of repertoire produces just the sort of cross-pollination that a venture of this sort needs to offer.

There’s an obvious superficial similarity in the frequent busyness and rapid notes of both composers’ styles, but the correspondences turn out to be deeper. Handel’s frequent phrases of vocalise are echoed in an entire Glass number from 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and in two sections of another from Monsters of Grace. Both composers make distinctive use of obbligato instruments, with the trumpets in “Vivi, tiranno,” from Rodelinda, having a martial quality in marked contrast to the tint of solemn royal ceremony they add to the “Hymn to the Sun,” from Akhnaten.   

Perhaps the primary discovery in hearing all of this music together is that the Glass works seem so very much of their time. “Liquid Days,” with lyrics by David Byrne that are either parody or else ripe for parody (“I offer Love a Beer / Love watches television / Love needs a bath”), has the same chord progression as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and the similarity of the introduction of “How All Living Things Breathe” to the Bach–Gounod Ave Maria seems unintentional. 

On the other hand, Handel’s music, offering enormous interpretive opportunities to the singer, seems timeless. The highlight of the album is the death scene of Handel’s Tolomeo, “Stille amare.” Costanzo and Cohen have accepted Handel’s invitation to do something truly personal here. Costanzo’s colleagues, such as Philippe Jaroussky and David Daniels, take about four minutes for the main body of the aria. But in this version, the excruciatingly slow tempo—unstinting in the bitterness of suicide, the torture of the drops of poison in the veins portrayed by prickly ornaments in the violin lines—extends the aria well over five. Yet Costanzo convinces us that the aria couldn’t be sung any other way.

Hopefully we’ll hear more Handel from him. There is a well-integrated cadenza capping the Rodelinda aria, with brave, striving ornamentation on the da capo. But there’s no avoiding the way Handel’s music makes Glass’s “Hymn to the Sun,” as beautifully shaped and characterized as it is by Cohen, sound thin. 

Costanzo’s Glass/Handel pairing is part of a larger, multidisciplinary project involving live staged performance but also fine art and couture. (This probably explains the one misfire, Handel’s thrice-famous “Ombra mai fu,” done as if to say that something can be “beautiful” without any context. It’s indistinguishable here from the lament “Lascia ch’io pianga.”) But as audio alone, the album is welcome, engaging from first note to last. —William R. Braun



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