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George Frederick HANDEL Susanna     Peter Neumann conducting Collegium Cartusianum & Kolner Kammerchor, Ruth Holton, Elisabeth von Magnus, Syste Buwalda, John Elwes, Tom Sol   MDG Gold 332 0945-2 *[Disc 1: 60:08 - Disc 2: 51:41 - Disc 3: 46:05 * Total: 157:53]

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Susanna (HWV 66), a work of 157 minutes in this performance, was written in six weeks between 11 July and 24 August 1748 by a Handel already well into his sixth decade. Among the oratorios it comes after Solomon and before Theodora, and can be considered the centre panel of a triptych concerned with the portrayal of especially strong and well characterised heroines. The work was first performed on 10 February 1749 at London, Covent Garden, and only received three more performances before disappearing, to be revived shortly before Handel's death for one performance in March 1759. It was not therefore one of the composer's great successes in his lifetime, yet it is a work which offers much for us to enjoy to day, not least the high drama of the choruses in the court scene, and several beautifully written arias, but also Handel's sincere and utterly warm-hearted admiration of the character and dignity of Susanna herself.

The story is derived from the Apocrypha and takes place during the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Susanna, is a beautiful young woman recently and happily married to Joacim. When her husband goes away for a few days the virtuous Susanna bathes in a spring where she thinks she is unseen. However, two members of the Council of Elders spy on her, and when she rejects their sexual advances they attack her with false accusations of adultery with a mysterious, for non-existent, young man. Susanna is condemned to death, but Daniel cross-examines the Elders and the contradictions in their fabricated story are exposed. The Elders are executed and the work ends with a love duet / chorus wherein Susanna declares to her husband, "Lord of my heart and each warm desire, With thee the flame began, and shall expire."

Susanna had been a popular subject in art, with men happy to paint a beautiful naked women with a Biblical justification for doing so, but had previously held little musical attraction for composers. The artists almost inevitably, though doubtless unconsciously, placed themselves in the dock with the voyeuristic villains, thus aiding the crime they superficially condemned. A composer would have to side with Susanna, so perhaps the ageing Handel wanted to speak-up for his sex by defending Susanna, making the point that not all men are corrupt self-serving hypocrites. We should though remember that in the Bible an Elder is not necessarily old, but someone with a position of responsibility and respect as a community leader, and therefore doubly not a man to be lusting after a married woman or spreading false allegations.

The overture has a great sense of drama and import, leading to a chorus of sombre beauty and considerable majesty as Israel laments her persecution by the Babylonians. Once the story proper begins the chorus is limited until Act III. John Elwes and especially Tom Sol give well-defined and clear characterisations of the Elders, yet unfortunately it is sometimes necessarily to consult the libretto to understand Sytse Buwalda. This is only a minor drawback, for Joacim is soon off-stage, but it is a rather more serious problem that Elisabeth von Magnus is not entirely clear in her English in the title role, her German accent very occasionally becoming quite noticeable. This is something that becomes more striking in the scenes with Ruth Holton, as both Attendant and Daniel, for her English intonation is inevitably far superior. Nevertheless, Magnus is musically impressive and brings considerable emotional intensity her interpretation of Susanna. Her "If guiltless blood…" aria (track 16 Act II) is a triumph of resigned defiance.

Although the oratorio could fit onto a double CD, MDG Gold has sensibly placed each act on its own disc, such that each CD reaches its own finale. The choral climax of Act I is a stirring double-fugue, Act II ending on a more celestial, eternal note, a holding action before the grand drama of Act III. Here the cliff-hanger must be resolved, the chorus driving forward relentlessly with emphatic declarations that "Susanna is guilty, Susanna must bleed." Some of the finest music in the oratorio follows, and while Ruth Holton has a 'smaller' voice than Elisabeth von Magnus, she approaches the powerful male role of Daniel with great confidence - though I must confess, I can not be sure if it is Ms Holton herself, the recording, or a limitation in my hi-fi which causes her voice especially sibilant on the faster passages. More attractive is the lovely "Susanna's Fair" aria (track 6) in Act III, though this is one aria Emma Kirkby has made her own and probably no one else at the moment can sing it quite as well.

So, a great Susanna, no, for it is one which is more musically than dramatically rewarding. But it is certainly a very committed Susanna, carried through with considerable integrity, a very clear orchestral sound and dynamically powerful choral singing. The presentation is first rate, and setting what are far from fatal vocal idiosyncrasies aside, this is still a very enjoyable issue.


Gary S. Dalkin



Gary S. Dalkin

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