RECORDS / Double Play: Glittering gems in the darkness: Baroque Italian opera from Handel and a new English cello concerto, reviewed by Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson

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HANDEL: Ottone

Soloists, King's Consort / Robert King

(Hyperion CDA 66751/3: three CDs)

THE BASIS of Ottone - as with countless other 18th-century operas - is 'A loves B but thinks B loves C'. Intrigues pile up improbably, identities and motives are mistaken or disguised, but it turns out well in the end, with the cast all reconciled to their various fates or mates. True to type, the action takes place against a background of international carnage, of which we see and hear virtually nothing - except for a tiny burst of jolly 'battle' Sinfonia in Act 1.

I don't know which is harder to exploit - 18th-century librettists' endless fascination with this formula, 18th-century audiences' apparently endless taste for it, or Handel's ability to turn out - time after time - the most wonderful music for it. After one hearing Ottone sounds to me more like an opera of discrete gems than a piece of meaningfully linked jewellery. But when those gems are of such glittering quality as Matilda's 'Vieni, o figlio' or Ottone's 'Deh] non dir' then it's easy to forgive Handel for not being Wagner. The performances here are almost pure delight. Almost? There were just a couple of passages where I thought James Bowman sounded a touch underpowered, though the musicality and expressiveness of his singing always counterbalances. Claron McFadden is a lovely Teofane, and for me Jennifer Smith's 'Vieni, o figlio' was the highlight of the disc - the definition of eloquent simplicity. Robert King and his musicians keep up the pace and emphasise touches of instrumental poetry without forcing anything. This is playing that manages to be stylish without drawing undue attention to itself. Excellent recordings too. SJ

OTTONE has a nocturnal feel. Its predominant tones are muted, wistful, half-lit: Handel's duskiest lyricism. The exquisite pain of love and betrayal still gets all the best tunes, of course; sublimation comes not in the bright new dawn of forgiveness and reconciliation at the close, but in the abject despair of its hero's great Act 3 aria 'Tanti affanni', light years out of its time with dark and troubled string textures drifting disconsolately into ever darker modulations.

Extravagance is put on hold. Handel's scoring works wonders from just strings, oboes, bassoons and continuo, with the surprise addition of chirruping recorders - a chorus of Ottone's feathered friends - expressly reserved for the catchy 'Deh] non dir'. Oboes more often than not carry the expressive torch in sweet alliance with the voices, but they can be surrogate trumpets too, as in the vigorous 'Concerto' prefacing Scene 4.

Everywhere, the dexterity and resource of Robert King's Consort lend enchantment. As does the cast - a most successful amalgam of well-differentiated voice colours. Dominique Visse's light, boyish- sounding counter-tenor brings an engaging huskiness of timbre to Adelberto, the perfect foil to James Bowman's heroic opulence in the title role. His big, plangent tone continues to roll out, as yet untarnished. As Teofane, his betrothed, Claron McFadden bows in with the exquisite 'Falsa imagine', the purest of Handel, discreetly turned against a solo cello, archlute and chamber-organ continuo. Catherine Denley exploits ripe and forceful chest notes as the unsavoury Matilda, while Jennifer Smith's imperious Gismonda is a mature vocal presence who as surely conveys the heartache of 'Vani, o figlio' (how mesmerising its gently palpitating strings) as the venom of 'Trema, tiranno' - terrifyingly uninhibited, spite nailing every word, every run.

But Ottone's real strength is in its restraint: its ways are subtler, its shadows deeper, its finest arias linger quietly on. ES

CASKEN: Cello Concerto

Northern Sinfonia / Heinrich Schiff

(Collins 20th Century Plus 20062:

CD single)

NOW that Vaughan Williams and Delius are no longer seen in new music circles as symbols of all that's reprehensible, perhaps John Casken won't mind remarks about English tone-poem traditions. If he does, he has only himself to blame: here is a concerto embodying - he tells us - a musical landscape, specifically a northern fell landscape, and based - line by line - on a poem.

There are even purely musical connections. Despite the consistently non-tonal language and the touches of northern acerbity in harmony and orchestral colouring, much of the cello's sustained singing line has that nostalgic, aspiring, freely evolving quality one associates with the Delius Cello Concerto - though Casken is a lot more agile than Delius. And it's such beguiling writing, especially in the hands of Heinrich Schiff. The ascent of the cello line in the slow epilogue, 'through silvern air', with its tiny, almost vocal inflexions, has a naturalness that is surprising in these melody-starved times. The recording balance - the cello brought forward just a touch - helps. SJ

CASKEN spells out the subtext of his concerto in a simple five-line poem. We've all been this way before: 'leaves of farewell', 'winter's tree', intimations of mortality. But the music tells its own story, the cello simply stating, or 'singing', the five lines of the poem - five cryptic phrases, the musical kernel of the piece - before exploring, elaborating, between the lines. This candid, well-heard music has few textural secrets, even on first hearing. It knows its roots, it's in touch with brutal, elemental realities. And it will not go quietly to extinction. Resistance seems to focus in the flinty scherzo-like (and highly virtuosic) section of the second movement 'on folds of stone', but its resignation, heard 'through silvern air', seizes on some very beautiful final thoughts before expiring on a single harmonic. Heinrich Schiff is a grateful dedicatee. ES

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