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Handel: Tamerlano / Gauvin, Cencic, Minasi, Il Pomo D’oro

Release Date: 04/29/2014 
Label:  Naive   Catalog #: 5373   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Ruxandra DonoseMax Emanuel CencicKarina GauvinXavier Sabata,   ... 
Conductor:  Riccardo Minasi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Il Pomo d'Oro
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HANDEL Tamerlano Riccardo Minasi, cond; Xavier Sabata ( Tamerlano ); Karina Gauvin ( Asteria ); Ruxandra Donose ( Irene ); Max Emanuel Cencic ( Andronico ); John Mark Ainsley ( Bajazet ); Pavel Kudinov ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Leone ); Il Pomo d’Oro NAÏVE 5373 (3 CDs: 192:12 Text and Translation)

Minassi gives us in this release the 1731 version of the opera, which means shorter recitatives and the inclusion of the aria “Nel mondo e nell’abisso,” which was heavily reworked from Riccardo Primo . However, he also includes the excellent trio, “Voglio strage,” that Handel removed from Tamerlano ’s revival. This makes the album one of the relatively complete versions out there, and avoids the Hobson’s choice between Handel’s original thoughts upon the opera’s completion in July of 1724, and its first performance at the end of October later that year.

I will state up front that my main concern with it is the conducting of Riccardo Minasi. On the basis of previous recordings, he is a fine Baroque stylist, not given to gilding the ornamental lily overmuch. He conducts with precision, strong accents, and a great deal of energy. Too much energy, in fact. There are several arias in this Tamerlano where faster than standard (at least, from most of the competition) tempos obscure or prevent characterization. An example is “Dammi pace.” As Winton Dean notes, the opera’s anti-hero is “a specialist in mental cruelty,” with “the serpentine attributes of an oriental despot.” Tamerlano is a manipulator of emotion. I’m not fond in general of Malgoire’s version (currently on Sony 7527252), but his 100 bpm in this aria allows the very fine Henri Ledroit plenty of room to play the lovesick swain and occasionally drop the mask to show the gleeful puppet-master. Xavier Sabata utilizes dynamics to his advantage under Minasi, but the basic tempo of 118 bpm means there’s less room to refine the line for expressive purposes. He’s the headstrong lover, but only that, and all the joy of someone who delights in personal torture is missing. That’s one example; there are numerous others. This isn’t to say that Minasi is deaf to the beauty of Andronico’s slower arias when sung at a relaxed pace, but on the whole, he pushes just a bit too much, not letting his singers expand into Handel’s roles.

The casting is as good as any on records, and that includes both my current favorites, Petrou (MDG 609 1457-2) and Gardiner (now on Warner 2564 69620-8). John Mark Ainsley is an impassioned Bajazet who surmounts—if not always with great ease—the galloping tempo Minasi sets him in both “Ciel e terra” and “Empio, per farti guerra.” When not driven, as in “Figlia mia,” his ability to project character within the framework of the expressive musical line is paramount. For me, at least, his is the best Bajazet on records.

As much can be said of Karina Gauvin’s Asteria. Her “Cor di padre” is sensitively sung, with great attention to phrasing and excellent breath support. I don’t think I’ve heard her better, though it is a role whose tragic dimensions are well suited to her darker voice, focused tone, and dramatic skill. Minasi is blessed with fine singing even in the smaller parts of this Tamerlano . Ruxandra Donose, whom I praised in La Cenerentola , sings the runs and figures of “Dal crudel che m’ha tradita” effortlessly, while Pavel Kudinov not only has a wonderfully resonant dark bass sporting a wide range, but tosses off the coloratura of “Nel mondo e nell’abisso” with the kind of fluency that deserves a round of applause and an encore.

Max Emanuel Cencic rates a special mention. In the past I’ve lauded his focus, use of dynamics, and above all agility on numerous occasions, but just as often pointed out his very soft consonants, loss of power in the lower reaches of his voice, and complete lack of expression. The consonants are a bit better here, the voice more even, and best of all, there’s a face with changing emotions during his arias. The more assertive “Se non mi rendi” is still hesitant, but in the slower, gentler ones, such as “Bella Asteria,” he colors his tone and phrases to heartrending effect.

Coloring the tone isn’t a feature of Xavier Sabata’s Tamerlano, however. He handles the fireworks well, and sings attractively, but doesn’t convey strong emotion. “A dispetto d’un volto ingrato” is sung for the most part with remarkable suppleness (though see my remarks about Minasi’s tempos, above), but it is emotionally tentative, at best—though even this beats out Gardiner’s Derek Ragin. Nicolas Spanos under Petrou is both more expressive, and slightly better at his coloratura despite still faster pacing. But in “Bella gara,” all three completely miss the half-genial, half-malevolent toying with a victim necessary to make this aria work. Nor does any of the current crop of Tamerlanos creates the kind of character who can walk into a room and immediately suck out all of its atmosphere with his presence.

So in the end, it comes down to the quality of the rest of the cast, and the conductor. Gardiner provides the best and broadest selection of tempos, while Petrou has at times the most hectic, with Minasi only slightly slower and more consistently running fast. Most of my cast preferences are with Minasi’s recording, sometimes by an outright win (Ainsley, Cencic, Kudinov), at other times by a hair (Gauvin over Katsuli in Petrou, Donose over Findlay in Gardiner). The role of Tamerlano lies too low for Monica Bacelli, who has appeared repeatedly in it, but aren’t there several other fine mezzos capable of giving it a try? When Handel couldn’t get castratos, after all, he turned to women to sing the same roles. Given the dearth of decent castratos in the last few months, even years, is it too much to ask for another fine mezzo to take on the eponymous lead?

In lieu of that, I would split my present recommendation between Minasi and Gardiner, despite several cuts in the latter’s recording. But there’s still hope for a Tamerlano who, under an insightful conductor’s direction, could make much more of the part.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Tamerlano, HWV 18 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Ruxandra Donose (Mezzo Soprano), Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor), Karina Gauvin (Soprano),
Xavier Sabata (Countertenor), John Mark Ainsley (Tenor), Pavel Kudinov (Bass)
Conductor:  Riccardo Minasi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Il Pomo d'Oro
Period: Baroque 
Written: by 1724; London, England 

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