"The Triumph of Time and Truth" is mostly youthful, Italianate Handel, not old Handel in his imposing Sir Godfrey Kneller wig, frowning in a rather constipated fashion from countless portraits, although the final version of this work didn't appear in England until 1757, two years before the composer's death. This music is Handel in love, to paraphrase a recent movie title about an equally famous character. It makes me smile every time I listen to its graceful airs and choruses.
According to the liner notes, "an old idea was that [this work] presented us with a conspectus of a great composer's work, stretching from his youth to shortly before his death. This must be abandoned." Not so fast, I say. Just listen to the music. So much of it is sprightly, sometimes wistful, sometimes dreaming: a young man's vision of nymphs disporting themselves in a leafy glade. When we reach the end of the oratorio, the music finally does grow old as Beauty sadly decides to reform: "Guardian angels, oh, protect me,/ And in Virtue's path direct me,/ While resigned to Heaven above./ Let no more this world deceive me,/ Nor let idle passions grieve me,/ Strong in faith, in hope, in love." Only at the very end, do we hear the Handel of "Sampson" and "Theodora," Handel of the Old Testament, Handel of the martyrs and saints.
The London Handel Choir and Orchestra performs up to its usual high standards in this recording, in turn lively and somber as Beauty, Deceit, Time, Pleasure, and Counsel (Truth) argue their various positions. English soprano, Gillian Fisher sings a delicate Beauty with lovely trills and, toward the end, sweet resignation as she vows to pass her days in sacred solitude. Countertenor, Charles Brett sings a reliable, stodgy Counsel (Truth). He is the hardest soloist to understand because of the high range of his voice, but when understood, he comes across as a sort of Baroque Polonius, always spouting boring platitudes. Soprano, Emma Kirkby sings a lyrical Deceit. Although she has very little music to sing, her aria "Melancholy" is one of the highlights of this CD set. Tenor, Ian Partridge is persuasive in his role as Pleasure. If I had been Beauty, I would have taken his advice and given Counsel the boot. Bass, Stephen Varcoe stalks across the landscape as Time. He gleefully reminds Beauty of what she's going to look like in a few years ("Loathsome urns, disclose your treasure"). I think Handel's librettist borrowed from Shakespeare for Time's most powerful lines: "The hand of Time pulls down/ The great colossus of the sun,/ The stone-built castle, cloud-capt tower,/ And shall Beauty oppose my power?"
Yes, Time and Truth are ultimately triumphant, but not before we hear Handel at his most charming in this wonderful recording.