Handel: The Triumph of Time and Truth Import
Oratorio en trois actes / La Beauté : Gillian Fisher - le Mensonge : Emma Kirkby - la Vérité : Charles Brett - le Plaisir : Ian Partridge - le Temps : Stephen Varcoe - The London Handel Choir - The London Handel Orchestra, dir. Denys Darlow
According to the liner notes, "an old idea was that [this work] presented us with a conspectus of a great composer's work, stretching from his youth to shortly before his death. This must be abandoned." Not so fast, I say. Just listen to the music. So much of it is sprightly, sometimes wistful, sometimes dreaming: a young man's vision of nymphs disporting themselves in a leafy glade. When we reach the end of the oratorio, the music finally does grow old as Beauty sadly decides to reform: "Guardian angels, oh, protect me,/ And in Virtue's path direct me,/ While resigned to Heaven above./ Let no more this world deceive me,/ Nor let idle passions grieve me,/ Strong in faith, in hope, in love." Only at the very end, do we hear the Handel of "Sampson" and "Theodora," Handel of the Old Testament, Handel of the martyrs and saints.
The London Handel Choir and Orchestra performs up to its usual high standards in this recording, in turn lively and somber as Beauty, Deceit, Time, Pleasure, and Counsel (Truth) argue their various positions. English soprano, Gillian Fisher sings a delicate Beauty with lovely trills and, toward the end, sweet resignation as she vows to pass her days in sacred solitude. Countertenor, Charles Brett sings a reliable, stodgy Counsel (Truth). He is the hardest soloist to understand because of the high range of his voice, but when understood, he comes across as a sort of Baroque Polonius, always spouting boring platitudes. Soprano, Emma Kirkby sings a lyrical Deceit. Although she has very little music to sing, her aria "Melancholy" is one of the highlights of this CD set. Tenor, Ian Partridge is persuasive in his role as Pleasure. If I had been Beauty, I would have taken his advice and given Counsel the boot. Bass, Stephen Varcoe stalks across the landscape as Time. He gleefully reminds Beauty of what she's going to look like in a few years ("Loathsome urns, disclose your treasure"). I think Handel's librettist borrowed from Shakespeare for Time's most powerful lines: "The hand of Time pulls down/ The great colossus of the sun,/ The stone-built castle, cloud-capt tower,/ And shall Beauty oppose my power?"
Yes, Time and Truth are ultimately triumphant, but not before we hear Handel at his most charming in this wonderful recording.
The task in this case surely can't have inspired Morell much. To call the theme, such as it is, of the work platitudinous would be insulting to platitudes. Time passes, we are solemnly informed, with its familiar adverse effects on beauty. The carrot of immortality is dangled rather half-heartedly, and beauty (or rather Beauty) has to choose between resignation to the beast Time or further dalliance with Pleasure, choosing of course the former as was politically correct and edifying to do at that period. With this for a text one thing is for certain - the music had better be good.
Fortunately it is very good indeed. The very fact that Handel resurrected the work in one form or another not once but twice surely suggests that he thought well of it. If so, I agree. The style has far more in common with his later English style than with such early works as the Dixit Dominus or the Brockes Passion, which are much more in the German manner as we know that from Bach. Assuming that much of the music actually does date from that period, it suggests to me that Handel was already developing a new style for secular music very early in his career. Nothing in the galumphing portentousness of the text (`Pleasure! My former ways resigning,/To Virtue's cause inclining,/Thee, Pleasure, now I leave' and similar balderdash) seems to have placed a dampener on his inspiration, which is as fresh as paint from beginning to end. The performance seems very good to me too. It is a `period' performance, and I am rather sorry that no credits are given to the instrumentalists. The vocalists are well-known experts in early 18th century music for the most part, although Ian Partridge as Pleasure is probably better known in the 19th century repertory. His voice has deepened since I first heard him in Schubert's mill songs, and it is probably fair to say that it has coarsened just a little, but his artistry is impeccable and he fits in very well with the rest of the cast. Emma Kirkby is here as Deceit, a fairly small part seemingly added in 1758, Charles Brett has the countertenor role of `Counsel, or Truth', but the stars, for me, are Gillian Fisher as Beauty and maybe most of all Stephen Varcoe as Time.
The recording, from 1982, gives me no problems at all, and the liner essay, by Watkins Shaw, is downright good. Don't let the work's title put you off it. The real triumph here is the triumph of beauty and pleasure.