Allan Clayton is the latest singer to record a disc of arias associated with one of Handel’s star performers, in this case the versatile John Beard (c.1715-1791) who probably created more roles for that composer than anybody else. Beard learned his art as a treble in the choir of the Chapel Royal, but he also become a noted musical actor and in his long career sang for Handel in both operas and oratorios. True, some of the Italian operatic arias (from Il pastor fido, Ariodante, and Alcina) were sung by Beard in revivals rather than originally written for him, but their inclusion here demonstrates the musical range and variety of which Beard was evidently capable.
That dramatic adaptability is not entirely evident on this release which encompasses both genres, as well as some extracts from other English operas. Like Beard, Clayton honed his musical skills in one of the great Anglican institutions – St John’s College, Cambridge – and the finesse and discipline of that education is manifest in his singing throughout. His mellifluous tone and accurate intonation is ideal in calmer, more reflective numbers – particularly in the duet ‘As steals the morn’ (L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, the one item with Mary Bevan), which extols the virtue of sobriety and temperance) and in the gracious lilt of Il pastor fido’s ‘Sol nel mezzo risona del core’ or the clarity of a long-held note amidst the bustle of ‘Hark how the hounds and horn’ from The Fairies by Handel’s amanuensis J. C. Smith.
But in Oronte’s ‘Un momento di contento’ (Alcina) one might wish for something more ringing and resplendent, or greater dramatic urgency in such an as ‘Tu vivi, e punito’ from Ariodante. He is more comfortable in the comparative restraint required for the selections from the oratorios, or the charming ‘Softly rise’ from William Boyce’s Solomon, rather than in the bravura called for by the operatic numbers (in whichever language), or even the more rapt and erotic mood of ‘Where’er you walk’ itself, during which greater expressive characterisation is needed.
In the latter respect Ian Page and Classical Opera oblige more readily with a pregnant accompaniment to Jephtha’s ‘Hide thou thy hated beams’ or the bluster sparked off in Judas Maccabaeus’s ‘Call forth thy pow’rs’, and they also conjure an evocative accompaniment to ‘Tune your harps to cheerful strains’ with its pizzicatos and an ironically wistful oboe solo from James Eastaway.
The resonant acoustic of All Saints gives space to grander numbers such as ‘Happy pair’ from Alexander’s Feast where the Choir comes into jaunty play, or as an ambience into which Clayton may project his seamlessly crafted musical lines, bathed in a sonorous glow. However, the more-subtle nuances of gentler music are sometimes effaced by that sonic depth, such as in ‘As steals the morn’ or ‘Waft her, angels’.
The sequence of arias is presented chronologically, except for the title track, which is placed last. This compilation provides a useful insight into some of the music written for the English stage around the last decades of Handel’s towering career, and captures at least the technical accomplishment of Allan Clayton’s singing. The booklet includes texts and, as necessary, English translations.