Ian Bostridge's collection of Handel arias and recitatives plunges boldly into the familiar repertoire -- pieces done so frequently that they're likely to be greeted with a yawn. It's a measure of Bostridge's confidence that he devotes much of the CD to these warhorses, and of his skill, that they come across as fresh and newly imagined. Bostridge's "Comfort ye," and "Ev'ry Valley" from Messiah, are a case in point. First, he sings them with absolutely solid technical assurance, which sets him apart from the tenors in the vast number of Messiah performances. Second, he freely ornaments them, avoiding the standards (such as the appoggiatura on the concluding "God," of the recitative), but adds others that are wonderfully effective; his appoggiatura on the second syllable of "iniquity" is shockingly dissonant, but is a beautiful example of text painting. Third, his pronunciation (except for his excessively rolled "r"s) is refreshingly natural, with little of the mannered, exaggerated precision that afflicts so many English oratorio soloists. His "Waft her, angels, through the skies," from Jephtha, is a marvel of legato phrasing and pristine tone quality. Bostridge is equally successfully in the less familiar repertoire. The two arias from Ariodante bring out a darkness in his voice that isn't present in the less ominous selections, and they are an impressive example of the versatility and variety of color of which he's capable.
Harry Bicket leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and much of the credit for the album's effectiveness goes to his restrained and creative accompaniments. He actually makes the harmonic progression at the beginning of "Ombra mai fu" (the Largo from Xerxès) sound surprising and heartstoppingly tender. (In his excellent program notes, Bostridge points out that Handel must have had at least some ironic intent in giving voice to such ardent passion in a love song addressed to a tree.) Bostridge and Bicket shine new light on familiar repertoire and give the same loving attention to the less well-known pieces; this album should be of interest to fans of Handel, and of virtuoso Baroque vocal performance.