Fans of the Three Tenors should be warned that Three Baroque Tenors has virtually nothing in common with the Pavarotti/Domingo/Carreras phenomenon. There is only one tenor here, Ian Bostridge, singing repertoire originally composed for three early 18th century tenors with extraordinary but very different gifts: Annabile Po Fabri, Francesco Borosini, and John Beard. Almost all of the arias are from operas or semi-operas, and while a few are somewhat familiar, most of the selections are obscure, and several are recorded here for the first time. It would have been easier to discern the three singers' individuality and idiosyncrasies had the pieces for each been grouped together, but there is no discernible rationale for the order of the program. It takes a close reading of the program notes to try to sort out which arias were written for which singer, and not all the pieces are accounted for, so the unique premise of the album is undercut by poor packaging decisions.
The coloratura tenor is a voice type that had not even existed at the turn of the 18th century, and it was the virtuosity of Fabri, Borosini, and Beard that emboldened composers to write music for tenors that was as challenging as anything they wrote for women or castrati. With his agile, light voice, Bostridge is probably as well-equipped as any living tenor to tackle this daunting repertoire. He has the coloratura facility and breath control to spin out long lines, and he gives them intelligent, shapely contours. Borosini's voice extended down through typical baritone range, and Bostridge handles even those arias with assurance and solidity. One of the most fascinating things about the album is the juxtaposition of two settings of the same text, "Forte e lieto," the first by Francesco Gasparini in 1719 and the second by Handel in 1724, both written for Borosini's unique gifts. Handel's is certainly the more musically sophisticated, but Gasparini has a visceral emotional charge that Handel's lacks. Obscure arias by composers like Francesco Conti, Antonio Caldara, William Boyce, and John Galliard are reminders of the richness, subtlety, and dazzle of the troves of unexplored Baroque vocal music. Bernard Labadie and the English Consort are simply superb, providing nuanced and delightfully spirited accompaniments.