This is an issue likely to divide critical opinion. The Polish contralto
Ewa Podles brings to these arias from Rinaldo and Orlando a
passionate conviction. Her approach more than once put me in mind of the
celebrated English contralto Clara Butt and her remarkable Handel aria discs,
from Alessandro and Sosarme, of 1912. Podles' willingness to
indulge the slow middle section of, amongst others, Venti turbini is
in line with performance practice of earlier generations; certainly her final
long, held, chest note - inflammatory and triumphant - is the very opposite
of the baroque aesthetic exemplified by, say, Emma Kirkby.
In fact throughout this disc Podles' many virtues and limitations exist in
almost bewildering proximity. She sings Ogni indugio d'un amante
beautifully, only to end the aria with a crude descent to the baritonal depths
which simply diminishes what has gone before. She sings E un incendio
fra due venti with great insight and sensitivity whilst Cara sposa
is subjected to truly regrettable ornamentation.
Comparison can be made between Podles and the singer who replaced her, following
concert performances, in the recent Decca recording of Rinaldo [Decca
467 087-2], the American counter-tenor David Daniels. Daniels, who has previously
sung Cara sposa and Venti turbini on record with Roger Norrington
[Virgin Veritas 724354532627] sings beautifully, with subtle inflection,
and treats the arias as an arc; middle sections are in proper proportion
to the whole, rhythms are sprung and taut: Podles' line, by comparison, is
constantly bristling and vibrato-laden, as if she sees Handel through the
prism of nineteenth century operatic style.
The orchestral balance is rather too backward; conductor and orchestra are
resilient if not especially distinctive.
Nevertheless it is a measure of Podles' expressive and dramatic powers that
whilst there is much to question in her performances there is also a great
deal to admire. Hers is a distinctive and individual talent; whatever else
one may feel listening to this disc one will never be bored.