Handel: Theodora

Louise Alder Theodora, Anna Stéphany Irene, Tim Mead Didymus, Stuart Jackson Septimus, Adam Plachetka Valens, Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen
178:32 (3 CDs)
Alpha Classics ALPHA 1025 

I concluded the review of the last recording of Handel’s Theodora I wrote for EMR with the words that it was a recording ‘to which I hope to return on many occasions’. It would be pleasing if it were possible to write something similar about this most recent issue but I fear it is not. Given that I provided an extensive background to Handel’s penultimate oratorio in that review, I’ll here just remind readers that it was first given at Covent Garden in 1750. It has a libretto of variable quality by Thomas Morell and was not generally liked by Handel’s audiences, although it became one of the composer’s favourite works. Today opinion tends to side with Handel. It has also become fashionable to stage Theodora, often controversially.

The Erato recording was a rare take on a Handel oratorio by an international cast (the Irene was Joyce DiDonato, who played the part in the recent Covent Garden staging) that shone new light on the oratorio by approaching it from a more dramatic, operatic viewpoint than we customarily hear in concert performances. Cohen’s recording takes us firmly back into mainstream oratorio territory as it is viewed currently. Overall it is a fair reflection of the state of early music performances in the UK since they fused with the mainstream. There are some good voices – that of Louse Alder’s Theodora in particular has a freshness and tonal quality that is especially appealing – but, with the exception of countertenor Tim Mead’s Didymus, all display continuous, often wide vibrato. There is little suggestion that any of the singers involved has a background or training much associated with Baroque repertoire, the articulation of passaggi frequently lacking clarity, while waiting for anything as exotic as a trill is akin to waiting for Godot, Mead again excepted. To be fair there are one or two embryonic attempts scattered through the performance, in at least one case coming from a singer whose vibrato is so wide it is difficult to tell what we are hearing. Diction is universally poor, ironically the best coming from the only non-native singer, the Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka, who sings the part of the Roman governor Valens with ripe relish.

Jonathan Cohen’s direction adopts tempos that veer to opposite extremes, those for excessively slower speeds often incorporating sentimental mannerisms. But for my ears the worst sin of all is that he fails to inspire those singing Christian sentiments, either soloists or choir, into expressing the kind of luminescent joy Handel so memorably conveyed in his music, where he captures the near-incandescent rapture and commensurate danger that the early Christians found in their faith. ‘New scenes of Joy come crowding on, while sorrow fleets away’, sings Irene as Theodora is led away to her death. Not here. Obviously given contemporary mores, the music of the heathen Romans with which Handel so brilliantly contrasts the Christian passages comes off more convincingly, particularly the orgiastic choruses. Finally, to return to practical considerations, Cohen has committed the cardinal sin of not just including a superfluous lute in the continuo, but allowing it to be unforgivably obtrusive.

I’ve probably been unduly harsh on this performance. Listeners and critics inclined to mainstream performance will almost certainly value it more; indeed I’ve seen notices that overrate it to a grotesque degree. But I’m here writing for a readership presumably interested in HIP performance and from a personal viewpoint that the recording sadly mirrors the current poor state of early music in the UK. Fortunately there is always McCreesh’s superlative Archiv recording to which we can return, while the Erato makes for an interesting variant.   

Brian Robins


Maria Cristina Kiehr Anne de Bretagne, Lucile Richardot Louise d’Angoulème, Valerio Contaldo Charles VIII, Stephan MacLeod St Francis de Paola, Concerto Soave, Jean-Marc Aymes
Lanvellec Editions LE00002

Click HERE to buy this CD on the publisher’s website

Such is the embarrassing abundance of gifted Italian composers in the 17th and 18th centuries that the likes of Giacomo Antonio Perti, a composer of operas and oratorios, could be completely forgotten until virtually our own times. Boasting probably the longest career in the history of music, he began composing in 1678 at the age of 17 and was still composing when he died in 1756 at the age of 95! The musicologist Franco Lora has been able to ascribe this anonymous and rather curious oratorio to Perti on the basis of circumstances, style and sheer quality. Three of the four vocal parts are French Royals and the fourth is St Francis, and the music is democratically divided between all four with each receiving the same number of recitatives and arias. Surprisingly each half concludes with a duet, seemingly a convention which allowed the audience to prepare their exit! The piece demonstrates Perti’s inventive sense of melody and skill with his voices and orchestral forces. For me, the highlight of the casting is the presence of alto Lucile Richardot, whose lovely full contralto voice and innate musicality I noticed immediately before consulting the cast list. Unfortunately, the singing is not uniformly of this superlative standard – the two men are fine, but soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr sounds a little uninspired and vocally lazy by comparison. Perti’s reputation is slowly returning in the light of performances of his work, and if this piece is by him, it further enhances the reputation of a man much admired as a composer and teacher in his own very long lifetime. A star pupil of Celano, in turn the star pupil of Carissimi and in turn the teacher of Torelli and Padre Martini, he occupies a pivotal position in the development of Italian music, and like Clementi a century later, his sheer longevity and constantly evolving style ensured that he was extensively influential. 

D. James Ross


Early Nights in Edinburgh

D James Ross at the Edinburgh International Festival 2018

A Pair of Period Pianos

To be able to host two of the four ‘big beasts’ of the early piano world within four days of one another is the prerogative of an international festival, and we were uniquely privileged to be able to compare recitals by Ronald Brautigam and Robert Levin at Edinburgh’s attractive Queen’s Hall. Brautigam was playing a beautiful Erard piano of 1837 from the collection of Edwin Beunk, an instrument which was a feast for the eyes much admired by the audience before the recital even started. It turned out to be an equal aural treat, when Brautigan opened his performance with Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso. A full tone in the middle register, with an added edge in the bottom range and a delightfully light upper register allowed the instrument to reveal the innermost secrets of the works by Mendelssohn and Chopin which made up the programmne, while Brautigam’s stunning technique and deft pedalling provided further revelations. Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo  op. 31 provided a brilliant introduction to the two Nocturnes  of opus 27, where I have never heard the distinctive undulating arpeggios performed with more clarity and eloquence. Mendelssohn’s impressive Variations sérieuses  op 54 brought the first half to a spectacularly virtuosic conclusion.

The Six Songs without Words  op 19 proved a wonderfully melodic opening to the second half, with the venerable Erard fairly singing out Mendelssohn’s lyrical melodies, while Chopin’s op 60 Barcarolle  and op 57 Berceuse  continued in a similarly gentle vein. Brautigam’s wonderfully compelling and flamboyantly executed performance concluded appropriately with Chopin’s showy Polonaise-fantaisie  op 61 – a compositional and performance tour de force. A further delightful Barcarolle  provided a suitably calming encore.

The Queen’s Hall also hosted an all-Mozart recital by Robert Levin, this time on a modern copy by Paul McNulty of an 1805 fortepiano by Anton Walter & Sohn. The contrast in sound between this instrument and the 1837 Erard was striking, as Robert Levin conjured wonderfully silvery tones from an instrument which turned out to have a wonderfully percussive bass register and a charmingly rapid decay. In his witty verbal introduction, Levin cited a keyboard tutor by CPE Bach in which he advocates lavish ornamentation of repeats and valuably provides examples, which prove to be radical departures from the originals. Levin pithily explained why he was playing from printed music – ‘I need to know what not to play in the repeats!’ With improvisation high on the agenda, Levin had compiled an ingenious programme juxtaposing three Mozart sonatas with the composer’s flamboyant Four Preludes K284a. The recital opened a short piece reconstructed by Levin from a liminal fragment notated in a manuscript of the composer’s Grabmusik. The cascades of scales and arpeggios in the Preludes seemed to prefigure the keyboard fireworks of Chopin, and surely provide us with a rare window on Mozart’s much-admired skills as an improviser. Levin’s own stunning powers of improvisation in the repeat sections of the Sonatas were nothing less than breathtaking, surely showing the way for future performances of these concert staples. Mozart’s own piano arrangement of the overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail gave full rein to the clashing bass register, seeming almost to beg for one of the pianos of the time which featured Turkish percussion effects! If Levin’s laudable decision to group the pieces together and his slightly annoying mannerism of rushing to cadences led to a slightly breathless impression, this was a recital which was never less than exciting and frequently absolutely thrilling. An enthusiastic ovation elicited an unusual encore – Levin had transcribed the music from the famous portrait of the boy Mozart in red livery and looking hauntingly straight at the viewer. It turned out to be a youthful showpiece, surely designed to advertise the boy’s precocious compositional skills.

A Biblical Epic

If you will forgive the innuendo, Samson  uncut is surprisingly huge. This became apparent as we sat down to the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s oratorio, which was projected to last no less than four hours. Written around the same time as Messiah, Samson has never enjoyed the success it deserves, and with the exception of the last two numbers, the spectacular show-aria Let the Bright Seraphim  and the ensuing chorus Let their Celestial Consorts all unite  little of the music has entered the standard repertoire. As I sat through a series of very fine arias and choruses I found myself musing upon why this vintage Handel isn’t more mainstream. One problem is that all the drama happens off-stage – Samson is already blinded and defeated when we first encounter him, and the concluding destruction of the temple is reduced to ‘noises off’. The unrelentingly melancholy subject, only very latterly transformed to triumph, also makes for painful listening. I found myself tearing up as Samson considered his blindness, singing heartrending words by blind Milton to moving music by Handel, already losing his sight, and who also would be blind within a few years. Paul Appleby’s account of the air Total Eclipse, as indeed his interpretation of the complex character of Samson, was immensely powerful, while his vocal technique in a long and demanding role was stunning. Sophie Bevan in the dramatically thankless role of Delila was simply superb as she purred, trilled and cooed her way through her seduction aria With plaintive notes, earning her the only individual ovation of the evening. Matthew Brook’s well-gauged Manoa, Samson’s father, was a powerful presence. Alice Coote, by contrast, seemed less comfortable in the role of Micah, composed by Handel for Mrs Cibber, although she did grow into the part as the piece advanced. Mhairi Lawson was an excellent stand-in second Philistine/Israelite Woman, and Hugo Hymas was vocally well cast as Israelite/Philistine Man. Of course, Louise Alder gets the best music in the show, Let the Bright Seraphim, a wonderfully sparkling show-stopper of an aria with obligato clarino trumpet, which is a gift to a soprano with the technique to enjoy it to the full. Wisely employing the Harry Christophers solution of segueing from the b-section of the aria straight into the concluding chorus ensured that the piece came to a terrific climax, and a deafening and extended ovation from the Usher Hall audience

As always with the Dunedin forces it seems, the orchestral playing was consistently superb under the detailed direction of John Butt, with wonderfully expressive string playing and fine contributions from bassoon, oboes, trumpets and a pair of wonderfully rumbustious horns, not always pinpoint accurate but infectiously energetic. Thomas Pitt and Stephen Farr provided unerringly supportive continuo playing, while the latter was also the organ soloist in the movements from Handel’s organ concertos that graced the intervals. This was a fascinating Dunedin experiment, copying Handel in filling intermissions with instrumental works, on this occasion on a copy by Goetz and Gwynn of an organ owned by Handel’s librettist Jennens, during which the audience was encouraged to walk around and chat. You will be pleased to hear that your reviewer selflessly eschewed a visit to the bar to move to the front to hear the organ more clearly! Perhaps the ultimate jewel in the crown of this superb performance was the singing of the Dunedin Consort chorus, twenty-four young singers who produced an impeccably accurate and wonderfully gleaming sound throughout. This was a lot of Handel to take in at one go, but it was very good Handel and wonderfully performed by Edinburgh’s local Baroque heroes, the Dunedin Consort.

A Beggar’s Opera for our times?

As the late great Nikolaus Harnoncourt said in a verbal introduction to a period performance of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, ‘What would musicians have to do to surprise an audience to the same degree as an audience of the time was surprised by a loud chord?’. Leaving the question hanging, he started the piece, letting off a loud indoor firework at the relevant moment in the slow movement, smiling conspiratorially as the audience, aware of the recent terrorist bombings, screamed in shock. In many ways it is depressing how easily Gay and Rich’s social satire, The Beggar’s Opera  transfers to our own times. However the version performed in the King’s Theatre by the instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants and the actors of Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord used a modernised edition by Ian Burton and Robert Carson in which much ‘f-ing and blinding’, street dancing, drugs deals, texting and social networking sought to place the piece in the same shocking relationship with a modern audience as the original work had enjoyed with the 18th-century public. And I think with a few reservations that it succeeded very well.

The stage was filled with a sheer cliff face of cardboard boxes at the foot of which slept a beggar, and through the action the boxes provided a very serviceable set of props and settings for the action. An onstage band of period instrumentalists sat at boxes with tablets propped up on them with their music, and provided beautifully energetic accounts of the ballad airs and dances. The singing actors of the cast coped generally very well with the musical aspects of the show, although just once or twice the geography of the set led to timing or tuning going a little adrift. Evoking a mixture of Eastenders  and TOWIE  (Google it…), Robert Burt as Peachum and Beverley Klein as his wife provided wonderfully sleazy central characters, always teetering on the edge of violence. Kate Batter’s vulnerable but equally sleazy Polly and Benjamin Purkiss’s dashingly macho Macheath were strongly characterised, while the host of whores, gangsters and corrupt officials that seethe around them were vividly brought to life by a gifted and versatile cast. The athletic street dancing of the behoodied gang was particularly effective.

To my mind, it was a mistake to cut the Beggar and his prologue, as the lack of framework left a problem at the end, not convincingly solved by a change of government and all the beggars becoming cabinet ministers – ironically not as preposterous a conclusion as Gay and Rich’s original cynically contrived ending. Indeed the wit and cynicism of the 18th-century original shone through this performance, which remained almost entirely true to the narrative and many of the resonances of the text, while retaining the original song texts with just a few minor tweaks. As promised in the promotion, the musical dimension did have a fine improvisatory quality, in which the two Baroque violins, viola, cello and double bass joined by a recorder, an oboe, an archlute and percussion all directed from the harpsichord by Florian Carré sounded wonderfully spontaneous and energetic. If the band occasionally came across as a little underpowered against the ‘mic’d up’ voices in the theatre acoustic, the playing was always wonderfully expressive and imaginative, with very effective elaborations and ornamentation.

This riotous outing at the end of my Festival visit seemed a million miles away from the world of the elegant period piano recitals with which I have begun, but this has got to be the chief joy of an international festival, which can offer such variety even within the realm of early music. And bear in mind that while I was attending events in the ‘official’ Festival, on the Fringe elsewhere in town the Edinburgh Renaissance Band were wowing the crowds with innovative early programmes, and Cappella Nova were filling Greyfriars Kirk with the distinctive tones of Robert Carver!

D. James Ross


Handel’s finest arias for base voice ij

Christopher Purves, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
hyperion CDA68152

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]uch was the success of the first volume of Handel arias made by this line-up that they have released a second, exploring both opera and oratorio and portraying virtually every human emotion. Purves’s wide-ranging baritone voice has a real presence to it, and – as Handel requires – he pulls off some seemingly effortless wide leaps, and navigates the coloratura without a hint of the bluster that typically accompanies this repertoire. Arcangelo go from strength to strength – their performance of op. 3 no. 4 bustles with energy and the solos (including the bassoon in an aria by Porpora that featured in Handel’s London pasticcio, Catone) are all neatly done. The star of the show, though, is that voice; be it angry or sad, happy or regretful, there is a range of colours and an evenness of quality that must be the envy of many singers.

Brian Clark

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Camilla de Rossi: Sant’ Alessio

Musica Fiorita, Daniela Dolci
Pan Classics PC 10347

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]riginally recorded some fifteen years ago, this sparkling performance of Camilla de Rossi’s fine oratorio is a welcome reissue. The work was composed in 1710 for Vienna, and follows standard oratorio practice of the time, with two acts, an ensemble of soloists who come together to form the single final chorus, and an Italian libretto. The plot is simple – Alessio is about to be wed; his parents and bride-to-be celebrate, but the call of holy asceticism is too great; Alessio renounces bride and family (to the chagrin of both) and leaves. He is eventually found some years later, after his death, having lived incognito as a beggar, and the story ends with the lamentation over his newly recognised body. Camilla de Rossi clothes this rather sad tale with some stirring and dramatic music, though (as is often the case) the best tunes seem to go to the laypeople, rather than to the saint! Alessio’s father has a particularly splendid aria with trumpets and timpani (“Sonori concenti”), calling for celebrations about the forthcoming nuptuals, which Rossi cleverly additionally uses as a dramatic awakening call for the meditating Alessio’s first appearance. The saint’s jilted bride gets the most dramatic aria (“Cielo, pietoso Cielo”) which brings the first act to a breathtaking close, alternating between adagio lament and concitato rage. In the second act Alessio at last has his chance to shine in his ecstatic final “A guerra mi sfida.” The performance is all one could wish for – Graham Pushee is a sublime Alessio, Rosa Dominguez a suitably spurned Sposa, Agnieizka Kowalczyk a fine Madre and William Lombardi a sonorous Padre. Musica Fiorita play like angels under Daniela Dolci’s expert and dramatically finely judged baton. Most enjoyable!

Alastair Harper

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Bassani: Giona, Oratorio a 5 voci

Ensemble “Les Nations”, Maria Luisa Baldassari
88:48 (2 CDs in a jewel case)
Tactus TC 640290

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]assani’s Oratorio – composed for Lent in Ferrara when operas were forbidden – is a far cry from the both the oratorios of Carissimi and the operas of Cavalli, and closer in feel to Vivaldi or even early Handel. Da capo arias interspersed with recitatives slow what pace there might have been to what in the Parte Prima is a slow-moving, moralising opera substitute rather than a moving, dramatic, Biblically based narrative. A small organ and harpsichord play continuo, with a constant 8’ ‘cello line, and the violone player also plays the lirone (an instrument that reached its heyday in the early years of the seventeenth century – is there evidence for its use in music this late?), though I could not distinguish it. The upper strings in the five-part ensemble of single strings play in a modern style, with minimal regard for any historically informed practice. Their tuning – which may just be a failure to absorb the temperament of the keyboard instruments – feels at considerable variance with what we might expect. The ‘cello player is better: his free-ranging, melodic part in Non si fide di brieve sereno was a delight.

The singers – the male voices are the best – have some good moments, especially the Testo. But the female voices – there is a duet, and fine echo effects – who have the ungracious roles of Hope and Obedience – are less assured, and too wobbly for me. The narrative hots up in the Parte Seconda, where the storm descends and the helmsman (Atrebate) describes the ship about to founder, when Jonah wakes, rubbing sleep from his eyes. But curiously the whole effect seems bloodless and dull. Partly this is because the music isn’t up to much – there is too much Vivaldian tonic/dominant in endless D major: oh for Handel’s melodic inventiveness! – but partly because there is no real drive, no real dramatic climax – Jonah is just commended for his patience and obedience – and the singers don’t seem able to bring the characters they represent to life.

The recording and production doesn’t help either: there is no libretto with the liner notes: you have to go on line for that; but I couldn’t get through, and the Facebook page has comments from those who had the same experience. In the end, Tactus made contact with me, and provided the text (Italian only, for those who need a translation) and the liner notes. But there was nothing about the performance or style, and no information on the scoring or pitch or continuo decisions, so it is short on information that might help you evaluate the serious quality of this performance.

I don’t imagine there is another recording of this oratorio, but I doubt if this production will commend it to you, unless you are an enthusiast for this particular period and style: but I cannot recommend it as a performance.

David Stancliffe

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