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CD Review: Baroque Masterpieces, Beethoven Songs and a Bellini Box

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 18 February 2002

Handel - Messiah
Lynne Dawson, Nicole Heaston (sopranos); Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano); Charlotte Hellekant (contralto); Brian Asawa (countertenor); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Russell Smythe (baritone); Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass);
Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Marc Minkowski, conductor
Archiv 471 341-2 (2 CDs; texts and translations in English, French and German)

Handel's Messiah

This is not a Messiah for completeniks, as Marc Minkowski's recording is actually the soundtrack for a film by William Klein. All that is missing, however, are nos. 32-35 and 37 of the 1988 urtext edition, which should in no way deter anyone from listening to what is in fact a spirited performance, spread out among eight singers, presumably for the purposes of the film. Nicole Heaston's fresh voice rejoices greatly, while Lynne Dawson sings the more reflective music of Part III. Magdalena Kozená's single contribution ("But who may abide the day of his coming") is touching, while Charlotte Hellekant's "He was despised", one of the longest versions I have heard, may not possess the gravity of previous generations but is nonetheless expressively sung. Brian Asawa's fresh countertenor is heard to advantage as is Russell Smythe's baritone, with tenor John Marc Ainsley convincing if occasionally vibrato-laden. Only Brian Bannatyne-Scott's bass disfigures with his gritty, tremulous sound. Minkowski keeps everything light, with the occasional surprise in tempo. Orchestra and chorus remain alert throughout.

Handel - Gloria in B flat major; Dixit Dominus. Vivaldi - Gloria in D major
Gillian Keith (soprano)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Philips 462 597-2 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Handel - Gloria

John Eliot Gardiner's new recording of Handel's Dixit Dominus is set alongside the second recording of the composer's newly discovered Gloria and the conductor's first recording of the familiar Vivaldi Gloria. The disc is noteworthy only for the Handel Gloria, in which Gillian Keith brings the piece alive. Otherwise, Gardiner's performances of the remaining works are sober, with the vocal soloists coming from the chorus so that much of the music does not make its fullest effect.

Vivaldi - Juditha Triumphans
Magdalena Kožená (Juditha); Maria José Trullu (Holofernes); Marina Comparato (Vagqus); Anke Herrmann (Abra); Tiziana Carraro (Ozias)
Coro da Camera dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Academia Montis Regalis
Alessandro de Marchi, conductor
OPUS 111 OP 30314 (3 CDs - texts and translations in English, French, German and Italian)

Vivaldi - Juditha Triumphans

You may well wonder why this version of Vivaldi's "sacrum militare oratorium" takes three discs, until you discover that an overture has been tacked on from the composer's instrumental music, occupying just those extra few minutes requiring an extra disc. Otherwise you should not be disappointed in the high-quality music-making. Alessandro de Marchi offers a fleet reading, with Magdalena Kozená displaying her vocal seduction in the title role. Marina Comparato and Anke Herrmann take the higher roles with excellent readings. Maria José Trullu's Holofernes is a weak link, lacking true authority as the villain, her chesty lower register her only qualification for the role. Tiziana Carraro's Ozias neatly fills in the background, but it is the others on whom attention is focussed. This is Volume 2 of a project to record all of Vivaldi's sacred music and it is to be hoped that the project will be completed within my lifetime.

Vivaldi - Stabat Mater. Nisi Dominus. Longe mala
David Daniels (countertenor)
Fabio Biondi (violin, director)
Europa Galante
Virgin 5 45474 2 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Vivaldi - Stabat Mater. Nisi Dominus. Longe mala

Vivaldi's Stabat Mater has become a countertenor staple, so that it is easy to understand David Daniels's desire to sing and record it. He is in excellent company with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, all contributing to the success of an album showing the various facets of the Red Priest. The throbbing Stabat Mater finds Daniels at his most expressive, his voice displaying a wider range than most of his colleagues. The virtuoso aspects found in Nisi Dominus or Longe mala hold no terrors for him. We can only welcome him back to home territory after his ill-advised venture into the 19th century.

Wayfaring Stranger - Folksongs
Andreas Scholl (countertenor)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Decca 468 499-2 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Wayfaring Stranger - Folksongs

Andreas Scholl invades Alfred Deller territory, and does it successfully. The (over)close miking is favorable to the singer, though deprives him of nuance. Craig Leon's arrangements for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra include parts for harp and lute furnishing an "olde musicke" patina, with occasional reminiscences of John Adams, so that one often wishes for just a lute accompaniment. If you like the Anglo-Irish-American repertory of folksongs and/or you like Andreas Scholl, this is definitely a disc to acquire.

Beethoven - Irish, Welsh and Scottish Songs
Sophie Daneman (soprano); Paul Agnew (tenor); Peter Harvey (baritone)
Alix Verzier (cello); Alessandro Moccia (violin); Jérôme Hantaï (fortepiano)
Naïve E8850 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Far more pleasing to the music-lover in general is this selection from Beethoven's folksong settings. The three singers are all veterans of the baroque movement but nonetheless manage to convey a certain freshness. The selections are brilliantly contrasted so that one never tires, while Beethoven always amazes us with the variety he provides for the accompaniments. Singers and instrumentalists are attuned to every nuance, so that unalloyed delight is our reward.

Donne Barocche - Women Composers from the Baroque Period
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano)
Bizzarrie Armoniche
Opus 111 OP 30341 (texts and translations in English, French and Italian)

Donne Barocche

An unexpected treat. The best known of the composers is Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, here represented by instrumental music. The vocal music was written by Barbara Strozzi and three women who sought refuge in the cloistered life: Antonia Bembo, Rosa Giacinta Badalla and Bianca Maria Meda. Further instrumental music comes from the pen of yet another nun, Isabella Leonarda. This is, however, incidental as the quality not only of the music-making but also the music is such that one might even begin to believe in conspiracy theories. Roberta Invernizzi's soprano has a certain directness reminiscent of Maria Bayo, but her comprehension of the period remains exemplary. The members of Bizzarrie Armoniche (two violins, cello, harpsichord and theorbo) fortunately do not live up to their bizarre name.

Bellini :


Joan Sutherland (Norma); Marilyn Horne (Adalgisa); Yvonne Minton (Clotilde); John Alexander (Pollione); Joseph Ward (Flavio); Richard Cross (Oroveso); London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Richard Bonynge (conductor) - recorded 1964

I Puritani

Joan Sutherland (Elvira); Margreta Elkins (Henrichetta); Pierre Duval (Arturo); Piero de Palma (Bruno); Renato Capecchi (Riccardo); Ezio Flagello (Giorgio); Giovanni Fioiani (Gualtiero); Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Richard Bonynge (conductor) - recorded 1963

La Sonnambula

Joan Sutherland (Amina); Sylvia Stahlman (Lisa); Margreta Elkins (Teresa); Nicola Monti (Elvino); Angelo Mercuriali (Notary); Fernando Coreno (Rodolfo); Giovanni Fioiani (Alessio); Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Richard Bonynge (conductor) - recorded 1962

Beatrice di Tenda

Joan Sutherland (Beatrice); Josephine Veasey (Agnese); Luciano Pavarotti (Orombello); Cornelius Opthof (Filippo); Joseph Wardd (Anichino/Rizzardo); London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Richard Bonynge (conductor) - recorded 1966 Decca 467 789-2 (10 cds; notes and translations, but no texts, in English, French and German)

Decca 467 789-2 (10 CDs; notes and translations, but no texts, in English, French and German)

A box offering mixed pleasure is Decca's Bellini compilation, all sung by Joan Sutherland: her earlier recordings of Norma, Puritani and Sonnambula, and her only recording of Beatrice di Tenda. In all these versions, we can marvel at the freshness of the voice, simultaneously remarking the increasing droopiness in the tone and the increasing mushiness of the diction. Alas, the second versions of Puritani and Sonnambula benefit from starrier casting (Pavarotti, Ghiaurov and Cappucilli) so that these versions are easily superseded. The later Puritani also benefits from an additional section of the final duet so that we are not rushed to a conclusion. Fortunately, the earlier Norma is the one to own, as the later one is far too late. Sutherland may not have the incisive diction or way with words of some of her colleagues, but she has clearly worked hard on the role. Marilyn Horne's Adalgisa is the ideal foil for Sutherland, with John Alexander and Richard Cross well in the picture is not possessing the Italianate tone found in other versions. For Beatrice, Sutherland's only version still holds its own, with Josephine Veasey unrivalled as Agnese and the young Pavarotti living up to his surroundings. Highly recommended as alternate versions for those who prefer a more dramatic approach.

.Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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