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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): La Resurrezione, oratorio in 2 parts (HWV 47)

[I] Kate Royal (S. Maria Maddalena), Camilla Tilling (Angelo), soprano; Sonia Prina (S. Maria Cleofe), contralto; Toby Spence (S. Giovanni), tenor; Luca Pisaroni (Lucifero), bass
Le Concert d'Astre
Dir: Emmanuelle Ham

rec: April 15, 17 & 18, 2009 (live), Lille, Opra
Virgin Classics - 694567 0 (2 CDs) ( 2009) (1.52'12")

[II] Stefanie True (S. Maria Maddalena), Klaartje van Veldhoven (Angelo), soprano; Kristine Gether (S. Maria Cleofe), contralto; Marcel Beekman (S. Giovanni), tenor; Mitchell Sandler (Lucifero), bass
Contrasto Armonico
Dir: Marco Vitale

rec: Autumn 2008, Delft (Neth), Oud-Katholieke Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 93805 (2 CDs) ( 2009) (2.03'08")

When Handel arrived in Italy in 1706 he became acquainted with all the musical genres in vogue at the time. Soon he started to make his own contributions to the various genres of vocal music: operas, serenades and chamber cantatas. When he was in Rome it was Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli who became his most important benefactor, and it is also he who offered Handel the opportunity to compose his first oratorio.

Ruspoli organised a series of concerts in his home on Sundays during Lent. On 8 April 1708 Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Ges Cristo was performed. A sign of Handel's high reputation at the time was the fact that Ruspoli paid for 1,500 librettos which shows how much attendants were expected on the two consecutive days the performances would take place (Easter Sunday and Monday). Also unusual was the size of the orchestra Handel had at his disposal: 45 instruments, including 21 violins. The leader of this orchestra was none other than Arcangelo Corelli.

Today this oratorio is among Handel's most popular, and several recordings are available. In the programme notes of Emmanuelle Ham's recording Handel scholar David Vickers writes that eight recordings were on the market at the time Ham recorded her interpretation.

The first time I heard this oratorio was in the recording of Christopher Hogwood. It was the first recording on period instruments, and he had the luxury of having an orchestra (The Academy of Ancient Music) at his disposal which was of the same size as Handel's orchestra in the first performance. Le Concert d'Astre consists of 10 violins, three violas and two cellos, whereas Contrasto Armonico has 9 violins, two violas and two cellos.
Christopher Hogwood had also excellent soloists: Emma Kirkby, Judith Nelson, Carolyn Watkinson, Ian Partridge and David Thomas. In comparison Ham and Vitale can't quite compete with him in this department.

Ham's cast is generally pretty good, though. Camilla Tilling does well in the role of the angel (Angelo). Unfortunately his first aria - one of the most beautiful in the oratorio - is spoilt by her heavy vibrato and exaggerated ornamentation in the dacapo. In her second aria, 'D'amor fu consiglio', she comes back with a strong performance. She does equally well in her arias in the second part.
Kate Royal gives a fine account of the role of S. Maria Maddalena. Her aria 'Per me gi di morire' (part 2) is particularly beautiful. In 'Ferma l'ali' (part 1) I noted some odd ornamentation, though. This is an issue of this recording in general, by the way. Sometimes the ornamentation is exaggerated, and ornaments are not always technically impeccable - but that is probably inevitable in a live recording.
Sonia Prina makes a good impression in the role of S. Maria Cleofe, although sometimes there are some sharp edges in her singing, for instance in the arioso 'Piangete, s, piangete'. The contrast between the A and the B section of 'Naufragando vo per l'onde' is beautifully realised.

I am less impressed with Toby Spence in the role of S. Giovanni. Often I find his singing too loud, and he also has too much of a traditional Italian opera tenor. A little more subtlety hadn't been amiss. But the aria 'Caro figlio' in the second part is beautifully sung and well balanced.
Luca Pisaroni is very impressive as the devil (Lucifero). He has a beautiful and very flexible voice, and shows a great dramatic flair. He is just as frightening as his role requires which he demonstrates right in the beginning of the oratorio, in the recitative 'Qual'insolita luce' and the aria 'Caddi, ver'.
The voices don't blend that well in the choruses which end both parts of the oratorio. And the same is true for the duet of S. Maria Maddalena and S. Maria Cleofe, 'Dolci chiodi'.
Lastly the orchestra. It is regrettable that Ham doesn't use an orchestra of the same size as Handel's. Le Concert d'Astre is excellent, though, and the obbligato parts are all well executed.

The recording under the direction of Marco Vitale is different from this and all previous recordings in several respects. Vitale sums them up in his liner notes.
The main difference is the pitch. This recording is the first which is performed at the low pitch which was common in Rome at the time: a=392Hz. One of the reasons for this may be, as Marco Vitale suggests, that a lower pitch would make the text more clearly understandable. It has an effect on the performance of the parts for the oboes. The keys of the arias with oboe are unnatural, and when played as written the oboist has to deal with complex fngerings. If the music is played at low pitch, the oboist can transpose his part one tone downwards which makes his part much more comfortable.

Vitale also has made his own decisions in regard to the use of the violone and the double bass respectively. Handel makes a clear distinction between them, but it has caused modern performers some trouble to understand exactly what he had in mind.

The third aspect is the use of the trombone. "In the payment list of the first performance (...) we find a trombone player, but there is no evidence of a trombone in the score or a separate part for it." Vitale then refers to the fact that in contemporary oratorios the orchestra often included an ensemble of two trumpets and one trombone whose parts were not written in the score. This has led him to include the trombone in the basso continuo in those passages where the two trumpets are playing. >br>
Taking all these things into consideration this recording has to be welcomed, and Handel aficionados shouldn't miss it anyway. But the average lover of baroque music is probably first and foremost interested in the quality of the interpretation. Can this new recording compete with the recordings which are already available, among others Ham's? Despite the merits of this performance I hesitate to answer this question positively.

The main asset of this production is - apart from matters of performance practice - the orchestra, even though I regret that Marco Vitale - just as Ham - didn't decide to use the same number of players Handel had at his disposal. It is a very fine ensemble, and the players are all excellent as some of them show in their obbligato parts. I also much enjoyed the performance of the basso continuo. But there are some aspects of this performance which I find disappointing.

Firstly, the team of soloists is uneven. Klaartje van Veldhoven and Stefanie True are both young singers who are at the start of their career, although they have already participated in a respectable number of performances. They both have nice voices and sing their respective parts well. I would probably have liked two voices which were a bit more different. so as to ensure strong differentiation. Although Stefanie True has the sweeter voice their timbres are too close to easily tell them apart.
Kristine Gether has a most peculiar voice. If I had heard her sing without knowing who she was I had taken her for a male alto. She has a dark voice, but not very powerful, particularly at the lower end of her tessitura. And the low pitch makes that even more problematic, like in the aria 'Vedo il ciel' in part 2. She also has problems with the runs in 'Naufragando v per l'onde' (part 1).
Marcel Beekman has a clear voice and sings his part with ease. But there is something artificial about his performance. I miss any real passion; to my ears he is too distant. Mitchell Sandler doesn't have that problem, but his voice is not powerful enough to make Lucifero sound as frightful as Handel intended.

It is not just the individual performances which are sometimes disappointing. The interpretation as a whole is not very theatrical and is lacking the dramatic element which is a such feature of Italian oratorio. The recitatives are mostly rather slow, and the performance too rigid, with too little rhythmic freedom. In particular the dialogues, like in 'Ahi dolce mio Signore', lack flexibility and show little interaction between the protagonists. Overall the singing, especially in the recitatives but often also in the arias, is not really speechlike.

Although Handel's La Resurrezione is one of my favourite works I was sometimes bored with this version and my attention waned. That is not a good sign. It is mainly the lack of tension which make me rate this performance not as high as Ham's recording. There is much to enjoy because of the generally good quality of the singing and playing, but this interpretation is not dramatic enough to keep my attention.

Vitale's recording is recommendable to those with a more than average interest in Handel, in particular because of several aspects of his performance practice. From a strictly musical point of view Ham may be a better choice, in particular if one prefers a captivating and dramatic reading of La Resurrezione. But for me Hogwood's recording remains first choice, for the reasons I have already given.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Contrasto Armonico
Le Concert d'Astre


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