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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759) Sacred Works
rec. 1961-2009 HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC20049 [10 CDs + 1 DVD: 688:23]
It seems that, in terms of reissues of older CD sets,many companies are going the route of large box compilations as the only financially viable way to produce CDs that have previously had their day on the open market. The one problem that I have regularly encountered with many of them is very sparse documentation of the recordings in question. Decca Eloquence does a reasonably good job with them, but I have to admit that nothing I have experienced to date have been as poorly documented as this recent release of Handel’s Sacred Works from Hänssler Classics.
This set is mostly comprised of a series of recordings that Hänssler has released since the early 2000s. I could accept that there will be nothing in the way of notes, texts and even artist biographies however when I have to mount a time consuming search campaign over the Internet to figure out who is singing what in each of the works, then something is definitely wrong. In some cases, as will be noted, I was utterly defeated. It is really sad that artists could be treated so poorly by a company in its haste to get something on to the market.
First up is Helmuth Rilling’s 2009 recording of the Messiah made in concurrence with the Oregon Bach Festival. The sessions were held in the Festival auditorium in Eugene, Oregon. The acoustical space is splendidly realistic, feeling intimate but with a decent spatial atmosphere behind the voices and instruments. Rilling’s approach to the music involves tempi that are moderate to slow in general. The modern orchestra and chorus are in good form for him. He even allows for the occasional appoggiatura from the soloists; still much of this reading lacks fire. Things only seem to spring to life a bit in the second part and whenever the bass is singing. The men are far and away the best of the soloists. A young Thomas Quasthoff is already showing off the star quality of his instrument. His voice is deep, rich resonant and possessed of a hint of emotional quaver when he is singing. He sings with such command that I almost didn’t notice the occasional scoop into the high notes of “The Trumpet Shall Sound”. I could be generous though and refer to it as an appoggiatura. James Taylor makes an equally valuable contribution to the tenor solos. His voice is beautifully cultured and the coloratura sections hold no fears for him; his performance of “Thou Shalt Break Them” is nothing short of superb. Mezzo Ingeborg Danz has a rather soft-grained sound with just the merest suggestion of a sharp edge to her tone. She is generally pleasing but doesn’t quite have a presence that remains etched in one’s memory. Sbylla Rubens is the weakest of the four soloists, singing with a voice that is alternately pure and, at other times, edgy but her coloratura technique is right up to the mark. For the two gentlemen alone, I will happily retain this on my shelves beside far too many other Messiah CD sets. This was the one oratorio that was least affected by the lack of documentation by Hanssler.
With Saul we are in another world altogether. Here Rilling uses a modern instruments orchestra from Stuttgart, who replicate the performance practises of a period instruments ensemble with superior results. Tempi are much lighter and faster than are the case with his Messiah. The players are extremely responsive to his lead, as is the excellent choir. The jubilant opening chorus is a spectacular effort from choir and orchestra alike. Daniel Taylor gives a performance of David with a beautiful, almost otherworldly tone. His sings David with taste and gobs of elegant style. His is one of the best performances I have encountered of this role. Another winner is Kirsten Blaise as Michal. Her petite soprano has a gloriously pure sound that only occasionally becomes a bit pinched in the topmost range. She sings the role so very sweetly that I welcomed each appearance. Markus Eiche blusters occasionally as Saul but his vocal acting is first-rate, so that he makes one of the most three-dimensional Sauls on any recording; he is also quite adept in the coloratura sections. Norman Shankle sings attractively as Jonathan and Matthias Lutze is an imposing Samuel, made to sound appropriately sepulchral by the engineers. I do find that Elizabeth Keusch develops a glare in her upper range as Merab, but she does characterize the role very well. Laura Albino makes an exciting Witch of Endor, her voice sounding rather like that of the late Elizabeth Connell. Again the singers are mentioned but not the roles that they are taking so it involved me having to work it out.
The 2009 Alexander’s Feast is one of the best releases in the entire set thanks to the perfectly judged tempi of Rolf Beck. For this I had to give up on being able to figure out who was singing what among the female singers. The cast is uniformly fine and the modern orchestra and chorus tackle their work with style. There is a bright tenor who sings with excellent diction in Benjamin Bruns. Wiard Witholt is a virile sounding bass who managed the coloratura sections very well indeed. There is one particularly gorgeous-voiced soprano, whose voice simply palpitates with emotion and is a real high point on this recording. It is possibly Ms Mihalyova; but it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the three listed sopranos she is. The recording made in the Kiel castle is bright and spacious.
Moving onward to Belshazzar is like stepping back via a time machine. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this one, but for all the wrong reasons. This release first appeared in 1964 on Vox LP in the USA and on the Turnabout label in the UK. I cannot find that is has had a release on CD prior to this one. The very first notes of the overture show that something is amiss. It is very clear that these CDs have been mastered from a vinyl master. There are small clicks of the kind that I have not heard since my LP days and they reoccur throughout the oratorio. I can only deduce that either the master tapes have not survived or they are so badly damaged as to be unusable. The recording was one of Helmuth Rilling’s earlier efforts, and was blessed with a very wide stereo field which fills the room as soon as the chorus of Babylonians begin their opening number. The sound overall is rather primitive in its balances. The string section sounds so scratchy that you can almost feel the bows sawing away at the body of the violins. Sylvia Stahlman sings Nicotris with a beautiful, rather chalky white tone; the kind of which we don’t hear any more. Helge Birkeland as Gobrias/Messenger has a darkly resonant bass and sings his roles well except for a bit of lugubriousness in the coloratura parts. Helen Raab as Cyrus has a tremulous quality about her voice that did not bother me but might not be to everyone’s taste. Heidrun Ankersen’s Daniel is sour of tone and tends to stray from pitch. Wilfried Joachims Belshazzar has a shortened upper range and is not the most stylish of singers, but he is a very genial presence nonetheless and he sings with excellent English diction. The congregational choir and orchestra of the Stuttgart church are far better prepared that anyone has a right to expect from a non-professional ensemble. I must confess I found the entire recording enormously enjoyable but rather like one might enjoy an old silent movie that has aged very badly. This should not be anyone’s first choice to represent Handel’s Belshazzar in their music library.
The Dettingen Te Deum is from a 2001 release conducted by Ulrich Stötzel. It is an efficient and reliable performance but doesn’t hold a great deal of excitement. The orchestra and choir are equally up to the task; if only Stötzel had been a little more inspired by the piece. The soloists are more than acceptable with the exception of Matthias Rexroth, the male alto, whose tone is too plummy sounding, almost to the point of being tubular. Another documentation oddity here is that the track names are all given in German but the performance is definitely sung in English. This CD has been given some opera arias as a filler, which must have been licensed from DG as they were originally published on that label. Ernst Haefliger from 1961 impresses in his arias with his excellent command of coloratura, a feature of his singing that I had never encountered before. Indeed, it has been years since I have heard a tenor attempt to sing “Ombra mai fu” from Serse. I most enjoyed his traversal of “Total Eclipse” from Samson, sung in charmingly accented English. Maria Stader, also from 1961, shows up for a particularly lively account of “O had I Jubal’s lyre“ from Joshua, despite being sung in German. She is a singer whose voice has always struck me as sounding somewhat weedy but she is enjoyable nonetheless. All of the arias are conducted by Karl Richter with his usual elegance and intense concentration. The fact that he is now considered old-fashioned is such a pity, as his readings offer much to the listener if one doesn’t have a closed mind about period performance practices being the only way to experience Handel.
The final item in this set is a DVD of Der Messias, Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s work. It was commissioned by Baron von Swieten who wrote the texts for Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons oratorios, and intended only for private performances in the great aristocratic homes of Vienna. Here I must admit that I have never warmed to this work, which does no credit to either Mozart or Handel, and makes it very difficult for me to evaluate this objectively. The camerawork and sound are fairly standard for the early 1990s and there is a fine team of soloists that were captured singing at their youthful best. Personally I found the inclusion of this DVD to be generous but annoying.
To sum up, despite the serious documentation omissions there is enough pleasure to be found in this compilation to warrant considering the purchase especially as it is priced fairly reasonably for a box containing 10 CDs and a DVD. Belshazzar is peculiarly spread over three CDs. Acts Two and Three could quite easily have fit together on a single CD because they have a combined playing time of only 67 minutes. As this was the only work included that would have required a new CD master pressing it strikes me as odd that no-one noticed that.
Contents The Messiah HWV 56 (1741) [133:13]
Sibylla Rubens (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (mezzo); James Taylor (tenor); Thomas Quasthoff (bass); Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra/Helmuth Rilling
rec. 12-15 July, 1997, Silva Concert Hall, Hult Center for Performing arts, Eugene, Oregon
[64:15 + 68:51]
Saul HVW53(1738) [130:43]
Kirsten Blaise (soprano) – Michal; Elizabeth Keusch (soprano) – Merab; Daniel Taylor (counter-tenor) – David; Norman Shankle (tenor) – Jonathan; Wolfgang Frisch (tenor) – High Priest; Laura Albino (soprano) - Witch of Endor; Matthias Lutze (bass) – Samuel; Markus Eiche (bass) – Saul
Gächinger Kantorei, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. 27-29 January, 2007, Beethovensaal, Liederhalle Stuttgart
[60:14 + 70:29]
Belshazzar HVW61(1744) [144.18]
Wilfried Joachims (tenor) – Belshazzar; Sylvia Stahlman (soprano) – Nicotris; Helen Raab (mezzo) – Cyrus; Heidrun Ankersen (counter-tenor) – Daniel; Helge Birkeland (bass) – Gobrias, Messenger
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. Dates and locations not given, first released in 1964
[77:43 + 34:50 + 31:45] Alexander's Feastor The Power of Music, HWV75 (1736) [89:32]
Benjamin Bruns (tenor); Aneta Mihalyova (soprano); Jana Mamonova (soprano); Chiyuki Okamura (soprano); Lucia Duchonova (mezzo-soprano); Karolina Sikora (mezzo-soprano); Wiard Witholt (bass)
Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Choir and Orchestra/ Rolf Beck
rec. 20-23 March, 2009; Schloss Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Germany
[57:28 + 32:04] Te Deum in D majorDettingen, HWV 283 [38.06]
Dorothee Fries (soprano ); Cäcilie Fuhs (soprano);Matthias Rexroth (counter-tenor); Thomas Cooley (tenor); Raimund Nolte (bass)
Collegium vocale des Bach-Chores Siegen;Trompeten-Consort “Friemann Immer”; Barockorchester Hannoversche Hofkapelle/ Ulrich Stötzel
rec dates and location not given, first released in 2001 Samson HWV57 (1743)*
Total Eclipse [4:02]
Thus when the sun from’s watery bed [4:09]
Serse HWV40 (1738)*
Frondi tenere-Ombra mai fu [4:05]
Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna [5:56]
Giulio Cesare in Egitto HVW17 (1724)*
Svegliatevi nel core [4:29]
Joshua HWV40 (1748)**
O hatt ich Jubels Harf [2:43]