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Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 24 - March, 2001

Handel and Haydn - Voices


Jason Serinus

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Ratings:
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Acceptable
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A number of wonderful recordings of vocal works by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and one by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), have been released of late. Together, they offer ample evidence that we live in a true Golden Age of Early Music musicianship.

HANDEL • L’ALLEGRO, IL PENSEROSO ED IL MODERATO • Virgin Classics 7243 5 45417 2 8

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Delightful is the word for this “Pastoral ode in three parts” composed in 1740 after poems by John Milton. With John Nelson conducting Le Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, this recording is so filled with delightful, virtually unstoppable melody and the exuberance of fresh creation, that one wastes no time trying to figure out what supposed plot or common thread holds this half ode/half oratorio together.

David Daniels’ unique countertenor comes as a shock the first time around, but it is impossible not to capitulate to his combination of beautiful tone, flawless coloratura, and, when called for, perhaps the most impeccable legato to grace today’s concert stage. Christine Brandes is equally accomplished, her marvelous rendition of Handel’s “Sweet bird” chirping its song for all to hear. Tenor Ian Bostridge, soprano Lynn Dawson, and bass Alastair Miles round out the cast.

Curiously, in this world of musical androgyny, Daniels sounds more like a woman than a man; the fine soprano Lynn Dawson like a boy until she lifts above her lower range. Only Brandes and bass Alastair Miles sound as you’d expect a woman and a man to sound. All this adds to the fun, melodies and genetics melding into an unstoppable mellifluous flow. Be sure to catch Lynn Dawson’s “Or let the merry bells ring round,” joyfully accompanied by Jory Vinikour’s carillon. The disc two selections reminiscent of Messiah. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a source of pleasure from start to finish.  

HANDEL • RINALDO • Decca 289 467 087-2

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Daniels reappears in Handel’s 1711 opera conducted by Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music. Sonics are super, the addition of chirping birds and menacing thunder providing a delightful simulation of effects employed at the opera’s actual premiere, which featured pre-Star Wars pyrotechnics and the frequent in-house release of prolifically-eliminating sparrows.

Equally amazing is the singing. The main cast offers no less than three countertenors, with definite androgynous confusion in the voice of alto Bernarda Fink, whose “Early Music Voice” sometimes leaves her sounding like a countertenor. (In John Steane’s January 2001 monthly Gramophone column, he notes that singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, now 85, inveighs against this kind of voice. Schwarzkopf, who now teaches, is currently spending lots of time helping to undo damage caused to singers who try to alter their voices to produce this kind of vibratoless, androgynous sound.)

Though Daniels’ voice sometimes seems a bit small and dry, he sings the lead of Rinaldo to perfection; no matter what demands are placed upon him, he produces a flawless stream of sound. The sweet-voiced Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor sounds best in slower pieces; when he needs to voice runs that extend from the bottom to the top of his range, his range breaks sound curiously like those of a contralto past her prime. Happily, when the music suits Taylor’s voice, his singing is most pleasing, his superb legato contributing a touchingly beautiful “Sorge nel petto certo diletto.” Both Bejun Mehta, who has graduated from boy soprano to countertenor, and soprano Luba Orgonasova, who actually sounds like she has a woman’s organs, do a creditable job. As for mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, who sings the smaller soprano role of Rinaldo’s betrothed Almirena, her spectacular voice and technique virtually tear the pants off anyone who may actually be wearing them. Given all these high voices, the marvelous, steady, powerful voice of Gerald Finley as the King of Jerusalem comes as a welcome counterpoint, helping ground everyone else’s flights into the stratosphere.

Rinaldo is a long opera with many great arias. The overture is good enough to stand by itself, but there are one too many marches and Sinfonias. Thankfully, one cannot get enough of Bartoli’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” (which rivals the poignant, stylistically inauthentic but emotionally heartbreaking 1922 rendition by Claudio Muzio); Daniels’ wondrous coloratura flights and heart-tugging “Caro sposa”; and the strength and beauty of Gerald Finley’s glorious voice.

HAYDN • ARMIDA • Teldec 8573-81108-2

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Bartoli is even more astounding singing the soprano role of the wicked sorceress Armida in Joseph Haydn’s 1784 opera of the same name. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducting the occasionally harsh violins and other authentic instruments of the Concentus Musicus Wien in this live recording (Teldec 8573-81108-2), knows just how to provide Bartoli the support she needs. It is not that La Bartoli tries to upstage anyone, but her singing is so spectacular that, when placed alongside tenor Christoph Pregardien, or anyone else in the cast, she unavoidably dwarfs her comrades. Although Bartoli’s moderately sized voice is best heard in the smaller venues she rarely frequents in this country, her intensity in “Barbara! E ardisci ancor…Odio, furor, dispetto” rivals Callas’. (Before you bat your eyelashes at that statement, take a listen.) No, she does not have Callas’ weight or bone-chilling darkness, but her far more beautiful sound, stupendous shotgun technique, and searing fury, are enough to take one’s breath away.

Haydn’s music does not consistently engage with the same flood of creative genius as Handel’s L’Allegro or the late operas of Mozart; nor are Harnoncourt’s soloists as consistently excellent as Nelson’s or Hogwood’s. Regardless, there is plenty here besides Bartoli’s extraordinary singing, including the wonderful, ecologically-sound packaging by Teldec, to merit purchase.

HANDEL • ITALIAN CANTATAS • Archiv 289 469 065-2

Performance: See the review

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Up and coming mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, born in the Czech city of Brno, joins Marc Minkowski and the authentic instrumentalists of Les Musiciens du Louvre to perform three of Handel’s many Italian Cantatas: Delirio amoroso HWV 99; La Lucrezia, HWV 145; and Tra le fiamme, HWV 170. All were probably written between 1707 and 1710. Kozena, who made quite a splash with her recent DG recital of Czech songs, has an extremely accomplished technique, and can breeze through coloratura runs with the best of them. So can Minkowski’s instrumentalists, who play their respective solo passages as though they’ve known them all their lives.

It is rare that I find myself puzzled by a Handel vocal recording. But Kozena’s manner of singing, which is certainly what Minkowski wants, has thrown me for a loop. Certainly she possesses a beautiful voice, and sings many of Handel’s arias and recitatives in a manner that is sure to impress. Her production and personality, however, are very forward. Vibrato and overtones are minimal; it’s very much a “what you see is what you get” kind of voice. There are no magically floated pianissimi or heart-tugging tones to be heard, at least not on this recording. (If you’re familiar with Handel sung by a woman who sounds at times like a sweet wallflower or simple little thing, chirping innocently in lyrical passages, you’re in for surprise.) Instead, Kozena gets down and dirty with this forthright music, occasionally almost yelling out words in a manner that, to these ears, tends to disrupt the musical line. She doesn’t do this often, but when she does, she makes a major impact. 

At first, I thought Kozena sounded a bit like a crazy woman in these instances. Then, I was assured by a fellow reviewer that she and Minkowski exemplify a current trend in Early Music performance which attempts to reproduce, as best as possible, what is thought to have been an original practice of singing in a manner that approximated speech. This Kozena accomplishes by totally eliminating vibrato in certain places, launching into words in a manner that strikes me as wild.

Certainly Kozena is not singing tame music. La Lucrezia, for example, is filled with lines about vengeance, fury, punishment, and death (might fit nicely into today's computer games). But when her singing forces me to sit up and go “Huh?” rather than “Wow!”, I begin to question what is going on.

A comparison with Bartoli is instructive. Bartoli has such an attention-grabbing technique, part and parcel of her vibrant, exuberant, larger-than-life personality, that she occasionally seems bigger than the music she sings. A case in point is her early recording of Rossini songs, where her greatness far exceeds the worthiness of some of the compositions. But Bartoli’s huge range of expression to me always seems at total service to the music she sings. Armida’s fury certainly equals Lucrezia’s, but Bartoli expresses it in a manner that I find far more musical than Kozena.

I urge lovers of vocal music to hear this recording. Some will find it extraordinary, while others, I suspect, may be tempted to play its wilder passages at parties. I invite you to send me your reactions.

HANDEL • APOLLO E DAFNE & SILETE VENTI • DORIAN CD-90288

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Dorian’s single-disc recording of Handel’s great 1710 Italian cantata receives sterling treatment from Les Violons du Roy conducted by Bernard Labadie. Soprano Karina Gauvin, much prized by my Early Music America editor, sings flawlessly, occasionally exhibiting a trill of such color, that I wish she would trill on for many more measures. While much of her singing suggests the beauty of maturity, she lessens her vibrato to perform a “Felicissima quest’alma, ch’ama sol la liberta” of meltingly innocent purity, her duet with Marie-Andree Benny’s flute adding to a performance that Handel lovers will play over and over. (Listen to how she and the orchestra produce a perfect pause in the midst of the aria, and create an ideal rallentando at the close.) Lyric baritone Russell Braun, whose rare facility with coloratura is cause for rejoicing, lives up to his last name, on only a few occasions suggesting that he is other than a God through and through. As to be expected, Dorian’s sound is super, providing the icing on a multi-layered cake of baroque riches.

 

 - Jason Serinus -

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© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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