Philippe Jaroussky's Exquisite Handel

"Exquisite" is not a word to be invoked lightly. In the history of vocal music on record, there has been only one singer to earn that appellation—soprano Maggie Teyte, Debussy's second Melisande, whom the great Polish tenor Jean de Reszke dubbed "L'Exquise." To that exalted category must now be added countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose latest recording for Warner, The Handel Album, contains some of the most exquisite singing I have ever been privileged to hear.

For his first complete Handel album, the 39-year old countertenor has chosen 13 rarely recorded arias from 10 of Handel's 35 London operas. A listen to a brief fragment of "Che più si tarda omai...Inumano fratel...Stille amare" ("Why delay longer...Inhuman brother...Bitter drops"), King Tolomeo's suicide aria from Tolomeo, re d'Egitto (Tolomeo, King of Egypt-1728), reveals Jaroussky in superb voice. With an instrument that conveys heart-broken innocence and pathos in equal measure, he infuses his long-breathed legato lines with such beauty that it is possible to ignore the fact that Handel's Tolomeo is committing one of the most harmonious suicides in opera. Jaroussky's tenderness is as palpable as his poise is remarkable.

Auditioned via 24/96 files, the album opens with an aria from Imeneo (1740) in which Jaroussky's innocent sincerity and impeccably connected, long breathed lines are equally fetching. From there, he proves equally convincing in one of those raging tempests, in this case from Riccardo primo, re d'Inghilterra (1727), which churn so frequently in Handel's operas.

In arias expressing anger, vengeance, and the like, one of Jaroussky's great countertenor predecessors in Handel repertoire, the now 51 year old David Daniels, sometimes sacrificed his otherwise pearly tone in an attempt to sound butch. Jaroussky, however, not only knows his vocal limits, but has also developed a technique that allows him to sound forceful without forcing. While it is certainly the case that war and suffering are rarely, if ever, as sweet as they sound in his throat, we are talking about the hardly realistic operas of Handel, in which heroes die in major keys.

Jaroussky's brilliance in gauging exactly what is necessary to put a recitative and aria across, and then delivering it with seamless legato, breathtaking virtuosic runs, alto-like lows and startlingly beautiful highs sets him apart from other countertenors. Others may have bigger voices or more showy technique, but few make you so happy to hear them sing.

How well Jaroussky's sound approximates the sound of one of Handel's most beloved castrati, Senesino, or the countertenors for whom Handel also composed, we cannot possibly know. What is certain, however, is that taking his cue from Handel's own practice of transposing music when it passed from one voice type, eg, soprano, to lower-voiced mezzos or countertenors, Jaroussky places each aria in the range for which his voice is most suited.

One reason Jaroussky seems so present and totally in command is that he's backed by his own 20-person period ensemble, Ensemble Artaserse. (This seems to be a trend these days, with another baroque and song specialist, the lamentably past-her-prime contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, conducting and recording with her own chamber ensemble, Orfeo 55.) The musicians of Artaserse play as to the manner born, whipping up storms and then chirping sweetly as necessary. Their sounds and phrasing are equally exquisite, with the deep sonority of cellos and basses perfectly balanced with higher strings and woodwinds. Michele Pasotti's beautiful theorbo in "Qual nave smarrita" ("A ship trapped off course") from Radamisto (1720) serves as but one of countless examples of how well the ensemble's sound and pacing supports Jaroussky.

There are, in truth, any number of Jaroussky albums on which he sings as exquisitely. But for those who do not have those recordings in their collection, who, like me, cannot get enough of him, or who love Handel, this recording is essential. The Handel Album has certainly earned its rightful place in my next "Records to Die For" listing.

dalethorn's picture

Wow! Just wow. I rarely buy without audition, but the description here was all I needed. I have no real expertise in classical music, but I have a few dozen albums of arias, choral music, etc., and this for me is unique. And that's what's so welcome with this music - not just another album that sounds like a few others. Oh, and the accompaniment is marvelous. Very, very enjoyable.

dalethorn's picture

Speaking of Maggie Teyte, I listened to several of her songs on Youtube, and even on the Edison Diamond Disc recording of 1921, her voice was clear and strong - well above the noise level.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

the Debussy she recorded with Alfred Cortot in 1936. It restarted her career at the age of 48. The best source is Naxos Historical, since the mastering is much better than for EMI/Warner (even though EMI/Warner has the masters). You have to get them from Europe. As for other composers, her "L'heure exquise" by Reynaldo Hahn is incomparable - truly one of the great recordings of mélodie on record.

dalethorn's picture

Thanks for those tips. Finding new things in music is a rewarding adventure.

dalethorn's picture

From the Wikipedia entry on Cortot:

"Less famously but more appropriately and exquisitely styled, he accompanied singers such as Maggie Teyte and Charles Panzéra."

It seemed there might be a pun in there somewhere.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

who knows what "less famously" means in the context of Wikipedia, where anyone can write anything.

dalethorn's picture

Reading the Wiki on Cortot, I see that he made the first electrical recording. Just as interesting was noting how much benefit there was to acoustic playback systems from the electrical recordings. My grandmother was a neighbor of (my namesake) Evan Williams in Akron OH, and he introduced her to Caruso at one point. Unfortunately for Williams and Caruso, they just missed electrical recording by a handful of years.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

According to this page,, Cortot did not make the first electrical recording. Different sources say different things.

dalethorn's picture

Surely someone will claim Tesla did it, but ..... oh, never mind.

2_channel_ears's picture