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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Arias from oratorios & operas

[I] "The Life, The Light, The Way - Sacred Arias"
Franz Vitzthum, alto
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Julian Christoph Tölle
rec: JKuly 14 - 15, 2019, Erlangen, Neustädter Kirche
Christophorus - CHR 77441 (© 2020) (63'03")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alexander Balus (HWV 65) (overture; Mighty love now calls to arm); Concerto grosso in C 'Alexander's Feast' (HWV 318) (allegro); Concerto grosso in F, op. 3,4 (HWV 315) (andante; allegro); Joshua (HWV 64) (Heroes when with glory burning); Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74) (Eternal source of light divine); Saul (HWV 53) (O Lord, whose mercies numberless); Solomon (HWV 67) (Bless'd be the Lord - What through I trace, rec & aria); Susanna (HWV 66) (overture; On the rapid whirlwind's wing; When first I saw my lovely maid); Theodora (HWV 68) (As with rosy steps the morn; The raptured soul)

[II] "Human Love, Love Divine"
Nuria Rial, sopranoa; Juan Sancho, tenorb
Capella Cracoviensis
Dir: Jan Tomasz Adamus
rec: August 11 - 14, 2019, Cracow, Radio Kraków
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19439781602 (© 2020) (73'42")
Liner-notes: E/D/ES; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Acis and Galatea, masque (HWV 49) (Happy, happy we); Alcina, opera (HWV 34) (menuet; gavotte; sarabande; È un folle, è un vile affettob); Aminta e Fillide, cantata (HWV 83) (Se vago rio)a; Ariodante, opera (HWV 33) (ballo; entrée des Songes agréables; Dite spera e son contento); Caro autor di mia doglia, duetto (HWV 182a); Cecilia, volgi un sguardo, cantata (HWV 89) (Tra amplessi innocenti); Esther, oratorio (HWV 50) (Who calls my parting soul); Hercules, oratorio (HWV 60) (O prince whose virtues); Il pastor fido, opera (HWV 8) (overture: largo); Jephtha, oratorio (HWV 70) (Waft her, angels, to the sky)b; Judas Maccabaeus, oratorio (HWV 63) (With honour let desert be crown'd)b; L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, pastoral ode (HWV 55) (As steals the morn); Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74) (Eternal source of light divine)a; Rodelinda, opera (HWV 19) (Prigioniera ho l'alma in pena)b; Samson, oratorio (HWV 57) (Let the bright seraphim)a; Theodora, oratorio (HWV 68) (With darkness deep)a

[III] "Arias"
Christophe Dumaux, alto
FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Dir: Laurence Cummings
rec: May 24, 2019 (live), Göttingen, St. Jacobi-Kirche
Accent - ACC 26413 (© 2020) (68'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Ariodante (HWV 33) (Dover, giustizia, amor; Spero per voi); Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,8 (HWV 326); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Aure, deh, per pietà); Orlando (HWV 31) (Ah! stigie larve - Vaghe pupille, rec & aria; Fiammi combattere; Già l'ebro mio ciglio); Rinaldo (HWV 7) (Sorge nel petto; Cor ingrato, ti rammembri); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (Pompe vane di morte - Dove sei, amato bene?, rec & aria); Teseo (HWV 9) (Voglio stragi, e voglio morte)

[IV] "Witches, Queens & Heroines"
Margriet Buchberger, soprano
Il Giratempo
rec: July 19 - 22, 2019, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
Perfect Noise - PN 2004 (© 2020) (51'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Alcina (HWV 34) (Ombre pallide; Credete al mio dolore; Ah, mio cor); Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11) (Ah, spietato!); Atalanta (HWV 35) (Al varco, oh pastori); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (Da tempeste il legno infrato); Lotario (HWV 26) (Scherza in mar la navicella); Siroe, Re di Persia (HWV 24) (Or mi perdo di speranza); Teseo (HWV 9) (Morirò, ma vendicata)


Discs with aria recitals are released with great regularity. Every year such discs land on my desk. Some are quite interesting, especially those which include arias from operas or other works which are not available complete on disc, which is often the case if they are from the pen of composers who are not part of the mainstream at today's music scene. Obviously, Handel is an entirely different matter. He is one of the most frequently performed composers of the baroque era, and all of his operas and oratorios are available on disc. From that perspective one may wonder whether it makes much sense to make a recording of single arias. As I have pointed out in previous reviews, there is always something unsatisfactory about such recordings, in which arias are isolated from their dramatic context. Four recent recital discs are reviewed here.

It seems that singers prefer Handel's operas to his oratorios. Over the years, I have heard (and sometimes reviewed) quite a number of recital discs with opera arias, but only a few with arias from his oratorios. That is rather curious, as most of Handel's oratorios are not very different from his operas. It is for a reason that he called them 'sacred dramas'. The main exceptions are Messiah and Israel in Egypt. The consequence of the stylistic similarity between the two genres is that oratorio arias are not necessarily easier to sing nor require less dramatic talent than opera arias. And that is where I feel the recital by Franz Vitzthum [I] is not entirely up to what it takes to bring the music to real life.

Let me start by saying that I like his voice. I have heard him in live performances and recordings of German sacred music of the 18th century and in vocal chamber music. In those genres he belongs to the best of his guild. His biography in the booklet says that he participated in oratorio and opera performances. I have not heard him in the latter, and I find it hard to imagine him as an opera singer. His singing here is excellent from a stylistic point of view. How nice is it to hear a singer who does not destroy the music with an incessant and wide vibrato. In his ornamentation he is generous enough, but he does not rewrite entire lines, unlike some of his colleagues. However, I am not impressed by his cadences. I find some of them rather unnatural and artificial (Heroes when with glory burning (dacapo), As with rosy steps the morn (B section)).

'Eternal source of light divine' from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne is nicely sung, and I also particularly enjoyed 'O Lord, whose mercies numberless' from Saul and 'The raptured soul' from Theodora. My main reservation concerns the dramatic aspect. I miss some of the theatrical this music requires. That is probably also the effect of selecting arias from a wide range of works. Maybe this recital would have come better off the ground, if Vitzthum had confined himself to more arias from two or three oratorios. That would also have given some idea of the dramatic development in a particular work. The extracts from orchestral works inserted in the programme also contributes to the impression of a lack of coherence.

I certainly have enjoyed Vitzthum's singing as such as well as the playing of the orchestra. However, as a recital of Handel arias, it does not fully satisfy me.

The close connection between opera and oratorio in Handel's oeuvre is further documented by the second disc [II]. The title promises duets about 'human love' and 'love divine'. However, there is little difference between them, both in content and musically. We should not forget that, although most of Handel's oratorios are based on biblical subjects, they include many elements which are the result of the fantasy of the librettist, and added in order to make them more dramatically interesting. Moreover, this programme includes a duet from Theodora, ranked among the oratorios in the catalogue of Handel's works, but in fact a drama about the legend of a Christian martyr from the 4th century. In addition we get some arias in which the protagonist expresses his or her love, not necessarily for his or her lover, such as 'Waft her, angels, through the skies', the famous aria by Jephtha (from the oratorio of the same name) for his daughter, and 'With honour let desert be crown'd' from Judas Maccabaeus, in which the title character weeps for his brother killed in battle. Apart from arias and duets from oratorios and operas, the programme also includes extracts from other works (such as a cantata and a masque) as well as an independent duet.

Handel's duets belong to the best part of his oeuvre, and he was probably the most brilliant composer of duets of his time. He was inspired by Agostino Steffani, the most productive composer of duets, which Johann Mattheson marked as models. However, there is something special about this disc: we get here only duets for soprano and tenor, and such a scoring is rather rare. Juan Sancho, in his liner-notes, rightly mentions the fact that duets were "normally reserved for the heroes and heroines of the time, i.e. (...) castrati and female sopranos". However, there could be a musical reason as well: as the two voice types have a comparable tessitura, but then an octave apart, composers have to take care of avoiding octave parallels. It is notable that among Steffani's duets, which are separate pieces, only a few are for soprano and tenor.

This could have been a quite interesting disc, and Handel's duets never fail to capture an audience. However, this disc has to be marked as a pretty big failure. That is mainly due to Juan Sancho. I checked at the internet, and his biography shows that he is trained in early music and has worked with some of the main exponents of historical performance practice. That does not show. I heard him in the 2018 Utrecht Early Music Festival, when he took the role of Abaris in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Les Boréades, and performed it as if the music were written by Rossini. And that is how he sings here. His performances remind me of the traditional way of singing 19th-century Italian opera. He produces a sound that has little to do with the aesthetics of the baroque era, and his performances don't stand out for subtlety, which is especially problematic, as duets are mostly not dramatic, but rather intimate. The cadenza in 'È un folle, è un vile affetto' from Alcina is utterly unstylish, 'With honour let desert be crown'd' from Judas Maccabaeus turns into a shouting party, and in Jephtha's aria he has serious problems with the top notes. It is hardly surprising that his voice does not blend particularly well with that of Nuria Rial, whose style of singing is entirely different. It is a shame she uses more vibrato than in previous recordings, but even so her performances are virtually the only thing which makes this disc not completely unbearable. That said, the performance of 'Eternal source of light divine' in the soprano range, at an extreme high pitch, is ridiculous.

All in all, it is a mystery to me why this recording has been made, as it seriously compromises historical performance practice.

With the last two discs we turn to the secular. The Accent disc [III] has a simple title: "Handel Arias". Christophe Dumaux selected arias from several operas, but - although there is much to choose from - he largely confined himself to the best-known. Even I, despite not exactly being an opera buff, recognized most of them. There are some operas which are not that well known and not often performed and recorded. A selection of at least some lesser known arias would have made this recital a whole lot more interesting. That opportunity has been missed.

Some arias are preceded by accompanied recitatives, such as 'Dove sei' from Rodelinda and 'Vaghe pupille' from Orlando. That is also the case with 'Aure, deh, per pietà' from Giulio Cesare, but here the track-list omits to mention it and the booklet omits the lyrics. In these recitatives Dumaux shows his dramatic talent, which is considerable. I can't remember having heard him before in opera, and therefore I was curious to know how he would do in this repertoire. He does not have a good start. In 'Dover, giustizia, amor' from Ariodante, the balance with the orchestra is less than ideal, and I noted that his voice is not that strong. However, that is hardly a problem in the rest of the programme. More problematic is that here he uses a fast, nervous vibrato on every note. I was afraid that Dumaux was contaminated by the Franco Fagioli virus. However, although he often does use too much vibrato, it is not as bad as I feared. In 'Dove sei' he opens the aria with a vibratoless phrase, and he also omits it entirely at some moments in the recitative 'Ah stigie larve' from Orlando. Why he uses it in abundance elsewhere, is a mystery to me. It does not make his interpretation any more expressive.

There are some other issues. He falls for the temptation to almost completely rewrite Handel's music in the dacapo of 'Fiammi combattere' from Orlando. This is a bad habit, which unfortunately is mostly accepted by musical directors. In 'Voglio stragi, e voglio morte' from Teseo, Dumaux includes an ornament, in which he goes to the upper end of his tessitura. This is highly exaggerated, and not nice to listen to; it is shouting rather than singing. It's simply bad taste. It does not contribute to a positive assessment of this disc. I don't say that it is bad, especially as the orchestra is outstanding, not only in the arias but also in the performance of the Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,8. But because of Dumaux's performances, which are often debatable from a stylistic point of view, and the not very adventurous programming, I don't consider this disc an indispensable addition to the Handel discography.

Unlike Dumaux's recording, the last has a clear subject, which is expressed in its title [IV]. Silke Leopold, in her liner-notes, puts it this way: "[Handel's] female figures include tender virgins and fearless mothers, powerful queens and scheming ladies-in-waiting, wicked sorceresses and good fairies. But they all have one thing in common: they are strong figures who are able to weather the vicissitudes of their fates and emerge triumphant, or at least reformed, at the end of the story". The only exceptions are sorceresses: "[They] must die, flee, or suffer defeat". She then argues that Handel takes every female character seriously, "echoing the sensibilities of each one and reserving all judgment towards them". As one of the features of Handel's operas, she sees that Handel "used his music to call for emphathy for all of their deeds and misdeeds - even for the wickedest of witches - by lending a voice to their feelings and the motivations behind their action". It is not without a reason that Handel's psychological insight is often mentioned as one of the reasons why he was such a brilliant opera composer and his operas are still very much part of the standard opera repertoire, even outside the world of historical performance practice.

The programme reflects these considerations, as it includes several arias in which the protagonist expresses strongly oppositional emotions. A good example is the very first aria in the programme: 'Morirò! Ma vendicata' from Teseo, in which Medea opens by saying "I will die", but then goes on: "But avenged, avenged I will die". A similar aria is 'Ah, mio cor' from Alcina, which closes the programme: "Oh, my heart! You are scorned!" In the B section, Alcina screams: "I am Queen, there is still time: Let him [Ruggiero] stay, or die, let him suffer eternally, or return to me". Such contrasts are effectively depicted in Handel's music, and Margriet Buchberger succeeds in bringing them out in her performances. There is no lack of drama here, and Buchberger, whom I had not heard before and is at an early stage of her career, seems to have what it takes to explore the features of dramatic characters. However, there is also some subtle singing here. One of the highlights is 'Credete al mio dolore', again an aria by Alcina.

In this aria she is also most convincing from a stylistic point of view. Overall, there are certainly some issues. First, as usual, a too frequent use of vibrato. I have heard much worse, and it didn't completely spoil my enjoyment of this recital, but even so it is unstylish and not tenable from a historical point of view. Second, in the application of ornamentation, she tends to go too far. Too often the original line is obscured by too much freedom in this department. Too often Buchberger goes to the top of her tessitura, for which I can't see any reason. In 'Morirò!' her embellishment of the opening phrase in the dacapo is even at odds with Handel's music. Leopold points out that the grief is expressed here, among others, by a descending G minor chord. It is rather odd, then, that Buchberger goes up in the air in her ornamentation.

This disc is a bit of a mixture between the good and the bad in modern opera recordings. Margriet Buchberger is certainly a singer to keep an eye on, but her performances here don't suggest that she is the singer those, who really care about a historical approach to singing in opera, have been waiting for.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Margriet Buchberger
Nuria Rial
Juan Sancho
Franz Vitzthum
Capella Cracoviensis
Il Giratempo
L'Orfeo Barockorchester

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