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The Vocal Retrospective
March 2021

[image] Ralph Moore Mike Parr [image]

The first in a series of monthly musings by two members of the MusicWeb International review team who share a deep fascination with opera and vocal music in general. Each month we shall take a glance back at something of interest that appeared on commercial CD from the accumulated history of classical vocal recordings.

The Dueling Rinaldos
A comparison of recordings of Handel’s opera by René Jacobs and Christopher Hogwood 

[image]   [image]

Mike: Handel’s Rinaldo came to my mind as a possibility for our first retrospective because I had been shovelling snow from my driveway for days on end. I tried to think of the furthest thing away from a Canadian winter and somehow crusading Knights and Saracens baking in the Middle Eastern sun seemed like a wonderful way to start.

Ralph: My first experience of this, Handel’s earliest success in Italian opera on the London stage, was the 1977 Malgoire recording, which has a very good cast and in comparison, stands up well against these two later recordings.

Mike: My first experience of Rinaldo was a staging in Ottawa in 1982. It was a fantastic fairy-tale affair with crusader tents of glimmering gold, muezzins calling from minarets, and even sea monsters and a giant mechanical flying dragon. Of the several recordings of Rinaldo I have heard the Jacobs most evokes the kind of spectacle that I recall. After suggesting this to Ralph he then proposed looking at how the Hogwood version stood up against the Jacobs in competition.

Ralph: Both employ period instrument orchestras but I prefer Harnoncourt’s stronger, more rhythmic manner to Jacobs’ fussier style. Hogwood’s direction is sharper and livelier and his instrumental lines and textures are more sharply defined. Jacobs’ strings whine too much in comparison with Hogwood’s and he has an over-emphatic harpsichord. Decca’s sound is superior: fuller and more immediate.

Mike: Yes when I first heard both overtures I had the impression that Hogwood’s orchestra is a larger group than the Freiburg ensemble that Jacobs worked with. Even so, I find Jacobs’ Overture offers much more to the listener. For example the additional obbligato for the solo oboe for the middle section which rises over some very emphatic string accents. It sounds like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Hogwood takes this section very simply with no sense of scene setting happening. Throughout the opera Jacobs has added various instrumental effects to emphasize elements of the story. I loved the castanets that were added to the Siren’s song in Act two. On the other hand I was surprised that Jacobs took “Or la tromba” at such a slow pace, much more so than Hogwood. I can only surmise it was to allow the valve-less trumpets a chance to really shine without the burden of trying to keep up to a faster tempo.

Ralph: Interestingly, the two recordings swap voice categories for Rinaldo and Goffredo: as Rinaldo, David Daniels is a countertenor, Vivica Genaux a mezzo-soprano and vice versa for Goffredo: mezzo Bernarda Fink for Hogwood and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo for Jacobs. Musically, it does not make a lot of difference as both allocations maintain a contrast between the two roles.

Mike: I have a definite preference for a mezzo in the role of Rinaldo. Despite that I have to acknowledge that Daniels is one of the best things about the Hogwood. His tone is sumptuous and at times in the middle range he sounds uncannily like Ewa Podles.

Ralph: Vivica Genaux is very agile, often with a tone similar to Marilyn Horne. Daniels is equally attractive of tone – nothing in it until their main aria, “Cara sposa” which is an aria of great beauty and central importance. I find Daniels’ luscious tones much more involving than those of Genaux, good as she is and she lets her vibrato get away from her on swelled, sustained notes. He finds more dynamic nuance and variety of colour than she.

Mike: I have to agree with you there. His version of “Cara sposa” is just that much better than Genaux’s. Even so I rather like Genaux’s voice; there is tanginess to her sound which makes me think of Seville marmalade.

Ralph: When it comes to Goffredo Hogwood’s Fink as has a great voice which is deep and smoky, very much how I imagine a great castrato would have sounded. Jacobs’ Zazzo has a very similar voice and is almost as fine as she - agile with a trill and considerable power - but occasionally squawkier and therefore not as attractive as Fink’s.

Mike: I don’t really have a preference there except that I think Zazzo’s voice is equally attractive to Fink. I did have a preference for Jacob’s Christophe Dumaux as Eustazio over Daniel Taylor. Taylor’s voice is more slender in tone compared to Dumeax’s sweeter sound.

Ralph: Yes, Daniel Taylor as Eustazio has weak low notes; I agree that Christophe Dumaux for Jacobs has a somewhat rounder, more pleasing voice.

Bartoli as Almirena is typically breathy and percussive. I have never got over how small her voice sounds live; she requires up-close miking. Miah Persson’s manner is not as exaggerated and her voice, too, is relatively small - but pretty. “Augelletti” is charming but Bartoli does her breathy, winsome bit; Miah Persson is simpler and more natural. There is a greater contrast between the two when Daniels’ Rinaldo duets with Bartoli’s Almirena, but both pairs are fine.

Mike: As much as I like Bartoli hers is not the sound I want to hear for Almirena. I want to hear a pearly-toned lyric soprano sound in this music. I was rather spoiled by my first Almirena , Benita Valente. Bartoli does some lovely things especially when she softens her voice and manner for “Lascia ch’io pianga” and “Bel Piaccer” But it is Persson who I find the more satisfying of the two.

Ralph: A young, but already strangulated Mark Padmore is the Herald for Hogwood - but Jacobs has an even worse singer in the role.

Mike: It’s such a small role that I wasn’t really paying attention. Nothing jumped out to me as being bothersome in either recording there.

Ralph: Gerald Finley as Argante is able to manage a much faster tempo than James Rutherford who is percussive and woolly - as clumsy, wobbly and lacking in tonal centre as I thought he would be. They really are chalk and cheese – Finley displays neat, clean divisions with a fast, controlled vibrato and a much more incisive attractive tone. It’s a voice I could listen to all day whereas Rutherford just makes it sound as if his aria lasts all day. “Vieni, o cara” needs a smooth delivery, legato and a honeyed mezza voce; Finley provides all those things. Rutherford is lumpen, his line scuppered by his imperfect vibrato which always makes him sound as if he is on the verge of tears.

Mike: Yes Finley is the absolute star of the Hogwood set with Daniels not far behind him. Has there ever been a more impressive entrance aria than “Sibilar gli angui”? Finley, being a baritone, takes his embellishments much higher than any bass that I have ever encountered in the role; almost into the tenor range. In the “Vieni o cara” aria he caresses his phrases so beautifully that time just seemed to stand still. When it comes to Rutherford I find him overstretched by the music although in the entrance aria his attack showed considerable confidence despite not being up to the musical demands. I thought him improved in his Act Two scenes which demand less virtuosity.

Ralph: I like Inga Kalna’s fruity, full-voiced Armida; it is a distinctive, characterful voice – her timbre is rather similar to both Luba Orgonasova and Bartoli’s but she has a bigger sound than the latter. Orgonasova is very good, too – another big, round soprano, no squeaker.

Mike: Luba Orgonasova has a lovely voice but she doesn’t for a moment convince me that she is on fire with rage as the sorceress. She does catch the vulnerability and hurt in Act Two quite well but ultimately she is sort of bland. I think Kalna’s vocal emoting wins out here. Her wounded pride and anger fairly leap out of the speakers. With regards to technique they are both winners.


Ralph: Both recordings use sound effects of thunder and birdsong but Hogwood’s are better than Jacobs’.

Mike: Hogwood’s birdsong is gently evocative and really adds to the atmosphere of “Augelletti” Jacobs’ birds are simply intrusive and compete too much with Miah Person and the instrumentalists. Jacobs has added all sorts of extra things to help illustrate the drama. The thunder that rolls in when Argante makes love to the disguised Armida to illustrate her rage at a point where she must remain silent is just one example of how effectively managed his recording is compared to Hogwood’s production. The scene with the Mermaids really works in Jacobs which just sort of passes by on the Hogwood.

I am also not bothered by the extra instruments that Jacobs introduces to the pit to add expression to various points in the score. It’s important to remember than unlike virtually all of the rest of Handel’s operas, Rinaldo was composed as a pastiche so there is less need to be utterly authentic. For this reason I often enjoy Rinaldo more than almost any other Handel opera.

Ralph: On balance, although there are obviously debits and credits to both recordings, I find Hogwood’s much the fresher, more involving and entertaining.

Mike: I will concede that Ralph is right, the Hogwood recording is generally better and should be the first choice for a Rinaldo to have in one’s collection. When I want to hear Rinaldo with all of its colour and spectacle on display I will still reach for the Jacobs in spite of some obvious flaws.

Christopher Hogwood – 1999 (studio digital)
Decca 289467087-2 3 CDs [173:29]
The Academy of Ancient Music
Goffredo - Bernada Fink
Almirena - Cecilia Bartoli
Rinaldo - David Daniels
Eustazio - Daniel Taylor
Argante - Gerald Finley
Armida - Luba Orgonasova
A Christian Magician - Bejun Mehta
A lady - Ana-María Rincón
First siren - Catherine Bott
Second siren - Ana-María Rincón

Digital Download in either FLAC or MP3 format: Presto Classical
Streaming is available from various sites such as Naxos Music Library or Spotify

René Jacobs – 2002 (studio digital)
Harmomia Mundi HMC 901796.98 3 CDs [193:00]
Freiburger Barockorchester
Goffredo - Lawrence Zazzo
Almirena - Miah Persson
Rinaldo - Vivica Genaux
Eustazio - Christophe Dumaux
Argante - James Rutherford
Armida - Inga Kalna
A Christian Magician - Dominique Visse
First siren - Miah Persson
Second siren - Inga Kalna

Digital Download in either FLAC or MP3 format: Presto Classical
Streaming is available from various sites such as Naxos Music Library or Spotify

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