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Georg Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Semele, HWV 58 (1743) edited by Julian Herbage
Jupiter - William Herbert (tenor)
Cadmus - George Prangnell (bass)
Semele - Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano)
Athamas - John Whitworth (countertenor)
Ino - Helen Watts (contralto)
Somnus - George James (bass)
Apollo - Robert Ellis (tenor)
Juno - Anna Pollak (contralto)
Iris - Brenda Griffith (soprano)
Thurston Dart (harpsichord continuo)
Chorus of priests, augurs, loves, zephyrs, nymphs, swains and attendants - Saint Anthony Singers
New Symphony Orchestra of London/Anthony Lewis
rec. 1956, London
ELOQUENCE 482 5055 [71:59+65:26]

The focal point of Richard Wigmore’s booklet note in this restoration of Semele is the singer of the titular role, Jennifer Vyvyan. As many will know, her most famous Handel exposure on disc came in Beecham’s Messiah, the soprano noting in her diary; ‘Sir Thomas said Rejoice Greatly was a tour de force and gave me a cigar’. Whether she smoked it or kept it as a souvenir is not clear.

This Semele recording was made a few years before Messiah and shows her in equally fine voice, under a rather different conductor, Anthony Lewis, whose exploration of the Baroque repertoire remains both important and uplifting. Lewis directs the rich-toned New Symphony Orchestra of London and the harpsichord continuo was played by Thurston Dart who employed one of Thomas Goff’s instruments. The edition used is that of Julian Herbage. There are a number of cuts that I noticed. There’s a brief snip in Act I scene 2 but the introductory Act 2 scene 1 is cut and starts at ‘Awake’ thus cutting Iris’s Look where Cithaeron. In scene 2, Cupid’s Come Zephyrs is cut meaning we start at O sleep, why does thou leave me? In Act 3 the Juno/Somnus Obey my will has gone as have other brief passages such as Juno’s Above measure and the trio Of my ill boding dream and Cadmus’ See from above. In some of these cases the sniping is brief, often a mere two lines or so, in the interests of speeding up the action and getting the whole work onto the three LP sides, I assume.

This recording is certainly Vyvyan’s, though Helen Watts sings Ino and Anna Pollak is always interesting and strongly-voiced as Juno. The women are significantly more impressive than the men, however, in rather unbalanced casting. Bass George Prangnell makes a very hollow-voiced Cadmus. He does what he can with Leave me, loathsome light but Forbes Robinson recorded this for Decca a decade later and it’s chalk and cheese time. Countertenor John Whitworth was following closely in Deller’s pioneering path and whilst largely attractive lacks Deller’s animating personality and individuality of expression. Tenor William Herbert is the Jupiter and he sounds as if he were carrying an umbrella and a copy of the Financial Times. That said, he has exceptionally fine diction and a good voice. It’s just that for Where’er you walk you really need a Heddle Nash or a Walter Widdop to graft some emotive intensity to Herbert’s well-turned but essentially passive, gentlemanly singing. It’s part of a conception of the time, it has to be noted, and not a specific criticism of Herbert.

There are effective moments throughout, though. The Act 1 thunder scene works well – effective without being melodramatic, just a few thunderclaps – and Vyvyan’s O sleep is attractively done indeed. The blending and dovetailing of Vyvyan and Watts’ voices in Prepare then, ye immortal choir is first class and whilst Myself I shall adore lacks the coquettish sheen of modern singers – say Danielle de Niese – it works well in the more constrained expressive context of this mid-50s recording. Ah me, too late I now repent is movingly done by the star singer.

There is no text but the restoration is fine.

Lewis directs with typical authority. String weight is obviously beefier than it was to become when ascetic desires for authenticity prevailed and the choral singing matches the weighty orchestra. Sometimes, just sometimes, Dart is overbusy. When Johannes Somary recorded Semele he had a far more consistent roster of singers but Lewis is not outgunned by Somary when it comes to direction of the music. He and Vyvyan remain the greatest assets here, for those who want to savour them.

Jonathan Woolf

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