This ranks among the most intelligent and striking recital discs of recent years. Spanish counter-tenor Xavier Sabata explores the worlds of Handel's villains – the tyrants, hypocrites and sensualists who are integral to his dramatic and moral vision, but whose music is rarely heard outside of the theatre. The album reminds us that Handel characterises evil with the same complexity and insight with which he depicts good; and it forms a superb showcase for an exceptional singer, who's never received the attention he deserves.
Sabata has one of the richest of counter-tenor voices, his warmth of tone carrying intimations of decadence. A perceptive vocal actor, he gets to the essence of his protagonists. Tolomeo, in Giulio Cesare, is a waspish voluptuary who delights in his own malice, while Tamerlano, in the opera that bears his name, is rendered lethal by his utter stupidity. Sabata places coloratura at the service of psychology throughout. Egeo, raising hell in Teseo, has lurching vocal lines that expose his vainglory. Polinesso, out to ruin Ariodante, reveals his meanness of spirit in the tightly woven scales that pervade his music.
Yet throughout, we are kept on the right side of empathy. The beauty of Sabata's singing is breathtaking, however unsettling his characters. We are constantly aware of Handel's ability to tell us how these men have become who and what they are. Sabata closes with Dardano's firebreathing Agitato il Cor Mi Sento from Amadigi di Gaula. But at the disc's midpoint comes the same character's Pena Tiranna, one of the most beautiful sarabandes Handel wrote. It shows us that Dardano is simply a man in love. Add in to the mix exceptional playing from Il Pomo d'Oro under its conductor Riccardo Minasi, and you have something very special. Matchless, and highly recommended.