Reviews: Triumph of Time & Truth CD 2014

Featured as BBC Radio 3's CD review in August 2014, the Aria 'Pleasure submits to pain' was broadcast. The disc received high praise from Andrew McGregor, who commended the 'fine solo contributions' and 'stylish instrumental playing'. But for him, 'the highlight is the chorus... it's all pleasure here, there is no pain to speak of'.

The Guardian, four stars, Tim Ashley

THE GUARDIAN: review

First performed in 1757, Handel's last oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, is a drastic revision of Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, written some 50 years earlier during Handel's Italian period. The latter is one of his greatest works, and it has become common for critics to say that the 1757 version is vastly inferior. This new recording from Richard Neville-Towle and Ludus Baroque may force us to refine that judgment. It won't dislodge the original from its high place in the Handelian canon, though it reveals that The Triumph of Time and Truth is by no means the disaster some have claimed.

The differences are, in part, of tone. Both works share a common allegorical narrative, in which Time and Counsel do battle with Pleasure and Deceit for the soul of Beauty, whose irresponsible hedonism, as a result, gradually gives way to a contemplation of transience and mortality. Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno has overtones of Catholic sensuousness, and is rooted in Platonic concepts of desire, giving eventual access to the divine. The later version is altogether more Protestant and austere. Some of the more sensual arias have been cut or rewritten. The arguments of Time and Counsel are now backed by some of Handel's most severe choruses, and the latter sometimes get in the way. The original ends with Beauty mystically contemplating eternity. Here, her sermon on the famous passage from St Paul on faith, hope and love is followed by a choral Hallelujah that comes dangerously close to wrecking the mood.

It's nicely done, however, with finely shaped, unflamboyant conducting from Neville-Towle, gracious playing and some very fine singing. Sophie Bevan plays Beauty in what is arguably her finest recording to date; the final aria is breathtaking. Her sister Mary as Deceit sounds at once seductive and cunning, while Ed Lyon is all elegant bravado and swagger as Pleasure. The opposition finds Tim Mead's infinitely chaste Counsel teamed with William Berger's Time. He's a bit too young and sexy for the role, but the ease and beauty of his singing are exceptional.

Gramophone, Editor's Choice

GRAMOPHONE: Review

It is misleading to rank The Triumph of Time and Truth(1757) as Handel’s last English oratorio. Unlike Jephtha(1752), it was not his own fresh work but an anglicised (and de Catholicised) adaptation of his very first Roman oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707), prepared by librettist Thomas Morrell working in collaboration with John Christopher Smith junior (Handel’s pupil, assistant and heir), but based on Handel’s own extensive London revision (1737). Handel’s only direct involvement was likely to have been limited to offering approving consent (or otherwise). None of this fundamental stuff is explained in Delphian’s booklet essay; nor does it report that Richard Neville-Towle presents the complete content of Handel/Smith’s 1758 revival (for which the role of Deceit was expanded).

The small orchestra’s playing is stylish and characterful, and Delphian’s excellent sound engineering fosters a perfect bloom for splendid trumpets and choral exclamations in the opening chorus, ‘Time is supreme’. The choir is ideally convivial, shapely of phrase and immaculate with text in the delightful chorus ‘Pleasure submits to pain’ that commences Act 2. Tim Mead sings serenely in Counsel’s ‘Mortals think that Time is sleeping’, a 1707 aria that retains its pair of cathartic recorders. Ed Lyon’s cheerful evocation of pastoral romps in Pleasure’s ‘Dryads, Sylvans, with fair Flora’ makes sin seem seductively plausible, whereas William Berger sings the solemn warnings of Time with compassionate authority: ‘Loathsome urns, disclose your treasure’ is subtly characterised by whispering strings and cautionary bassoon. It is intriguing to hear how Smith rewrote Agrippina’s flirtatious ‘Ogni vento’ for the seductive siren Deceit’s ‘Happy Beauty, who, Fortune now smiling’, finding attractive ways to use oboes, bassoons and a pair of horns that support the blithe Mary Bevan on fine form. Sophie Bevan matches her distinguished predecessor Gillian Fisher (Darlow, Hyperion) stride for stride; her eventual choice of Christian virtue over sensual decadence is expressed eloquently. Ludus Baroque’s most valuable Handel recording so far confirms that this unclassifiable, peculiar work is well worth revisiting.