This is wonderfully festive fare indeed – an ideal way to get to know new, and yet often strangely familiar Handel, in the run-up to Christmas. The work itself dates from 13 March 1734 and was written as a court celebration for the wedding (which took place the day after its first performance) of Princess Anne and Prince William of Orange.
As the accompanying booklet says, Parnasso in Festa was written as a full-scale Festa teatrale, a genre defined as a whole evening of secular entertainment, often staged with lavish scenery, but with no stage action. And what we have here, in just over two hours of sumptuously recorded sound, is a serenata in three parts. First, we are introduced to the inhabitants of Mount Parnassus who are about to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Then Calliope introduces the story of Orpheus and we have a version of his tale. Finally Mount Parnassus bursts into celebration: Mars arrives and blesses the happy couple and the final chorus declaims 'Tis Jove's decree/that they shall ever happy be.'
Strangely familiar Handel, I said, and so it is: for large chunks of Parnasso in Festa come from Handel's oratorio Athalia, completed and first performed in Oxford in 1733. 'Tyrants would in impious throngs' from Athalia becomes Apollo's air and chorus 'Deh! Cantate un bell'amor' in Part One. 'Faithful cares' becomes 'Quanto breve e il godimento', 'Through the land' is turned into 'Nel spiegar' – the list goes on. But when we have a performance of Parnasso in Festa as spirited and lively as this one by the King's Consort and soloists, the use of so much recycled material – often substantially reworked, it must be said – is a huge plus. It confirms the glorious quality of much of the music written for Athalia and allows us to hear it again in a new guise – no complaints from me on that score.
The overture sets the tone for much of what is to come: the sound is rich, full, the tempo has a lithe spring to it and the continuo is well to the fore. The strings are nicely plangent and the stage is set. As Clio, Carolyn Sampson immediately confirms my impression of her voice in the concert hall. She produces a light, pure sound, phrases with sensitivity and intelligence and has an understated vibrato that I like. Listen to her in No. 11, 'Con un vezzo lusinghiero' and enjoy the graceful delivery of a charming air, the melodic line beautifully held by Sampson against the insistent, tugging violins. This is an altogether charming performance throughout.
As Apollo, doubling as Euterpe, Diana Moore contrasts nicely with Sampson. Her mezzo is on the light side, nicely articulated but without any real heft to it as yet. But she produces a full, round tone and a delightful performance throughout. Two passages show her at her best. No. 13 is a lovely duet between Apollo and Clio – Moore sings her noble, unembellished line in effective contrast to Sampson who starts to decorate her own line from the moment she enters – just as it should be, the two characters are thus well contrasted and the two voices sound heavenly. But my real plaudits for Moore come in the final aria and chorus of the whole work, 'Ma alla stripe di Peleo'. The problems of breath control in this virtuoso aria must be considerable and one can almost hear Moore working at times, but she pulls it off triumphantly as the chorus join her in general rejoicing. I can imagine the burst of applause that must have broken out in the studio for that particular take – it makes for a thrilling ending!
All the other soloists are worth a mention. Peter Harvey, singing Mars, has a light bass-baritone voice with a particularly fine high register. Both his big arias, 'Del nume Lieo' and then 'Il lor destin' in the final part are distinguished by legato phrasing, accuracy combined with agility and a fine sense of the musical line, dynamics well observed. As Orfeo, Lucy Crowe is in fine voice. She brings touching restraint to her fine aria 'Ho perso il caro ben'', Handel's version of Orpheus's lament for the loss of his love. The tone is full and lush, but Crowe controls the line well and makes it sound like an easy sing – which it certainly is not! She brings similar qualities to the aria she perhaps sings best of all, 'Da sorgente rilucente', phrasing it all with great sensitivity and a lovely sound that sustains the melodic line. A different, slightly more soubrette-ish timbre comes from Rebecca Outram as Calliope. Her rebuke to Orpheus in Part Two, 'Che mai facesti Orfeo?', seems to have been recorded close-miked to the singer: we hear a breathy, urgent tonal quality in the voice against an accompaniment of scrubbing strings that reminds us – yet again – of Handel's immense debt to Vivaldi.
Finally Ruth Clegg, singing the alto part of Clori, does nothing wrong but does not really get a chance to shine in a minor role. But listen to her, Sampson, Moore and Outram with full choir at the start of Part Two in No. 22 'Nel petto sento un certo ardor'. Here we can enjoy the full contrast between four voice types, all nicely distinctive, as the ensemble introduce us to the legend of Orpheus against an inexorable downward spiral in the orchestral line and an insistent thud from the bass drum (atmospherically reverberant in the acoustic of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb in February and March 2008).
From all the above it will be clear that I have nothing but praise for the conductor Matthew Halls and the King's Consort, who play with style and panache throughout. The woodwind are often particularly sweet. The period horns bray for the gallop, orchestral dynamics are well observed – in short, this double CD set is a delight. Is the music up with the greatest of Handel? No, in my opinion it is a mouth-watering prospect for some of the great choral works that were still to come. But Parnasso in Festa thoroughly deserves a fine recorded performance, and Hyperion have done us proud in releasing this set. The quality of the accompanying booklet is, as always with this label, good.