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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Semele: O, Sleep Why Dost Thou Leave Me?
Semele: Endless Pleasure
Scipione: Scoglio d'immota fronte
Orlando: Quando spieghi
Serse: Ombra mai fù
Samson: To Fleeting Pleasures Make Your Court
Rinaldo: Lascia ch'io pianga
Rinaldo: Dunque, I laci d'un volto, Ah! Crudel
Samson: Let The Bright Seraphim
Giulio Cesare: V'adore pupile
Giulio Cesare: Da tempeste il legno infranto
Rodelinda: Ritorno, caro e dolce mio tesoro
Lotario: Sommo rettor del cielo, d'una torbida sorgente
Agrippina: Pensieri
Agrippina: Bel piacere
Alexander Balus: Calm Thou...Convey Me
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Harry Bicket
Recorded at the Colosseum, Watford, November 2003
SACD DECCA 475 6186

I enjoyed this recital very much. Fleming has a famously beautiful voice, subtly modulated, well equalized. She is equally impressive when the music sits low as when it takes her high. There are no breaks to reveal technical limitations and her singing is always pleasurable. I like the thicker sound she cultivates towards the chest voice and a touch – just a touch – of the Bartoli Effect in, say, Endless Pleasure, though she lacks the Italian’s daemonic change of colouration, aspirates and inability to relax the line. But Fleming’s lower voice can be formidably florid – sample Scoglio d'immota fronte – and quite capable of enough histrionic projection of its own. Compared with Bartoli, Fleming’s Lascia ch'io pianga is straighter; she doesn’t sing as softly as the Italian, but neither is her palette as self-consciously wide; there’s something of Bartoli’s trill there, though wisely I think Fleming avoids the chasm of dynamics and biting consonants that Bartoli parades. It courts, but doesn’t attain, mannerism.

So yes I enjoyed the recital but there’s a ‘but’. I found much beautiful but as the recital progressed I felt a sense of generic singing. Compare her Ombra mai fù with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s. The differences are subtle but telling, as indeed is the fact that Fleming discards the recitative leading to it. Lieberson’s is a voice attuned with the utmost immediacy to the intimacy of the text and to language. Her relatively recent Handel recital on Avie shows her contemporaries how to inflect without exaggeration the better to convey emotion. The graft behind this is hidden from us but its effect is transformatory. With Fleming beauty for its own sake is more the message and in the end that is what limits real admiration for her otherwise impressive singing. I’d draw particular attention to Da tempeste il legno infranto and to Ritorno, caro e dolce mio tesoro where there doesn’t seem to be a necessary differentiation of tone and inflection. And whilst Let The Bright Seraphim is indisputably proficient (superb trumpeting from David Blackadder by the way) it’s not really thrilling.

Harry Bicket is a practised hand at these things. I remember his work with David Daniels with especial admiration and he is thoroughly admirable here - and the sound quality is first rate. But in the end I was left slightly disappointed by Fleming.

Jonathan Woolf

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