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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Susanna HWV 66 [157.48]
Elisabeth von Magnus, mezzo soprano
Sytse Buwalda, alto
Ruth Holton, soprano
John Elwes, tenor
Tom Sol, bass
Kölner Kammerchor
Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
Rec: Live recording, February 9, 1999, Stadthalle, Wuppertal, Germany.
MDG 332 0945-2 [2CDs: 157.48]


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Handel composed Susanna in six weeks of July and August, 1748, shortly after finishing Solomon. Although it was well received, it was only performed four times during his life.

The oratorio tells the story of the unjust accusation of Susanna by two elders who lusted after her. Susanna, a respectable married woman, refused their requests for sex after they spied on her bathing in her garden. To get even with her, the elders accused her of sleeping with a young man they claimed to have seen with Susanna in her garden. She was found guilty and condemned to death by stoning. However, Daniel had the case reopened and got the false witnesses to contradict each other. They each claimed that the adultery took place under a different kind of tree. The elders were put to death instead.

The very first notes, and the entire overture and first chorus of this oratorio, have an ominous, portentous sound, in some ways similar to the opening chorus of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But the tone changes, becoming lighter and more optimistic with the first aria, in spite of its dark title Clouds o'ertake the brightest day. These first few minutes set the tone of this work - it is one of contrasts, of dark and light, of guilt and innocence.

Musically, Peter Neumann maintains perfect tension throughout the performance. From the urgency of the aria Who fears the lord, to the lightness of the recitatives, the orchestra's sound always serves the music flawlessly.

The soloists are also excellent; baritone Tom Sol shines in the aria Who fears the lord. Alto Sytse Buwalda has a fine voice, but his diction is not always clear enough. Soprano Ruth Bolton is brilliant, with a fine range of emotion and a stunning voice. She is clearly the star of this work, with many long arias, and her singing is unforgettable; one especially remarkable aria is Bending to the throne of glory, in the first act, which is a tense and emotional piece, another is Chrystal streams in murmurs flowing, in the second act, a delightful pastoral song, which she performs admirably.

The choir is excellent, but, unfortunately, only has a handful of chances to show its talent. The final movement of the first act is a brilliant piece with the different sections of the choir singing a sort of round; their voices ring out clearly, and the overall texture is magnificent.

The sound of this recording is remarkable - from the lush, rich sounds of the choir, to the tender, subtle nuances of the duets, the myriad details of the music come through perfectly. In spite of this being a live recording, the voices and instruments are very well balanced - there are naturally some weak spots, as in most live recordings, but the overall atmosphere captured on this magical evening in February 1999 is brilliant.

This is an excellent recording - the soloists, the choir, the orchestra and the sound are all top-notch. In addition, the vitality of the live performance comes across well. This is a must-have recording for fans of Handel's vocal music; a necessary discovery for others.

Kirk McElhearn

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