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Get a Handel on it

Solo recitals of arias from Handel operas and oratorios are common, so it’s a pleasure to hear an album devoted to his duets, particularly when they’re performed as well as they are here by soprano Rosemary Joshua and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Both have had diverse careers, but are known especially for their Baroque roles. Their voices are especially well-matched in weight, and their blend is beautifully warm, but they are each distinctive enough that they retain a strong vocal identity even when singing in close harmony.

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They are absolutely secure technically, and handle even the most florid passages with easy assurance. This is a glorious collection and we are playing it loudly at the end of every day because the arrival of Springs seems to be a good time to really belt out the Handel,

The variety of the duets gives Joshua and Connolly ample opportunity for putting their gifts for dramatic characterization on display. In the joyful duets of lovers, such as “Streams of pleasure ever flowing” from Theodora, their voices have a relaxed radiance, that can turn blissfully ecstatic, as in “Caro! Bella!” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, but for pure, giddy happiness, it’s hard to beat their performance of “Per le porte del tormento” from Sosarme.

Several duets, including “To thee, thou glorious son of worth” from Theodora, “Vivo in te” from Tamerlano, and “Io t’abbraccio” from Rodelinda, eloquently express melancholy yearning, aching grief, or simple sadness. Joshua and Connolly receive superb support from Harry Beckett, who leads the English Consort in exquisitely nuanced performances. Sound is clean, clear, and warmly ambient, and the balance is excellent.

The painting “Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters”, by an unknown artist circa 1594, is of Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of King Henry IV of France, sitting up nude in a bath, holding what is presumed to be Henry’s coronation ring, whilst her sister sits nude beside her and pinches her right nipple. Henry gave Gabrielle the ring as a token of his love shortly before she died.

The painting is a symbolic announcement anticipating the birth of Gabrielle’s first child with Henry, César de Bourbon. Her maternity is expressed in three ways: her sister pinches the source of the new mother’s milk, the servant in the background knits in preparation for the child, and the fire in the fireplace signifies the womb. The love between Gabrielle and Henry IV is expressed by the painting of a love scene on the back wall and by the coronation ring.

This painting is interesting in that everything is peculiarly biased toward left-handedness. Gabrielle’s sister is pinching her right nipple with her left hand, d’Estrées is holding what is said to be King Henry IV of France’s coronation ring with her left hand, and the seamstress in the background is sewing with her left hand.