It’s hard not to be immediately disarmed by English countertenor Barnaby Smith when he describes his debut solo album Handel as a vanity project. This delightful program of some of Handel’s best-loved arias, duets and instrumental music is also a fanboy project, the VOCES8 conductor, choral singer, teacher and LIVE from London festival director admitting “the music is taken from a selection of Handel’s greatest works and is a playlist of favourite tracks recorded by my vocal idols”.

Barnaby Smith

Such as his former teacher, Andreas Scholl. But while there are comparisons to be made with Scholl’s own solo Handel recordings, as well as with those of others such as Philippe Jaroussky the brilliant Franco Fagioli, that would be missing the point. This is a true homage, a tribute, both to Handel’s music and to those singers who have brought it so marvellously to life for Smith and the rest of us in our own time. It’s also something he wanted to be able to share, in later years, with his son, Orlando.

Not that Smith’s amiable self-indulgence needs any justification. His is a pure, flexible instrument, wielded here with tremendous musicality and generosity, the vocal line as consistently and cleanly incised as the diction is clear throughout. It doesn’t do him any harm, either to be joined by such a terrific line up of collaborators, including Mary Bevan (soprano), Catriona McDermid (bassoon), Gavin Edwards (horn) and The Illyria Consort directed by Bojan Čičić (violin).

Naturally, Smith opens with the recitative Frondi tenere and aria Ombra mai fù from Serse. Taken together with the following Venti turbini and Cara sposa, amante cara, both from Rinaldo, you have the perfect exordium: tenderness, fury and loss, rendered in provoking light and shade. Smith’s fioriture is exquisite; but so too is the Consort’s string playing, for example, in Ombra mai fù especially.

From here, the lovers Iphis and Hamor skip their way joyfully through These Labours Past (Jephtha), Smith and the always-impressive Bevan looking past Rodelinda’s and Bertarido’s valedictory torments in Io t’abraccio to Cesar’s and Cleopatra’s raptures in the program’s finale, Caro! (Bella!) Più amabbile belta, recorded live.

There is much between, from a bitter Scherza infida (Ariodante) and sunny Verdi prati (Alcina) to Giulio Cesare in Egitto’s Va tacito and Al lamp dell’armi, Smith’s runs in the latter fast if less than furious.

Amongst the vocal fireworks are the evergreen Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, with the Consort showing off its oboes to sparkling effect, and a swaggering, theatrical account of the overture from Giulio Cesare.

So: an enormously attractive program, performed with reverence, yes, but also with a sense of fun, of celebration. And with affection, and a real joie de vivre. Indeed, given this was, like so many other projects in the arts this last year or more, a lockdown project of sorts, one hears a sweet, life-affirming quality in every track, regardless of its overall mood and impact. That, and the spirit of community and collaboration: the hallmark not of a true soloist but of a true chorister. 

Available on Apple Music

Composer: Handel
Works: Songs and Arias
Performers: Barnaby Smith, Mary Bevan, The Illyria Consort, Bojan Čičić
Label: VOCES8 Records VCM136