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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus HWV 232 (1707)
Antonio CALDARA (c.1670-1736)
Missa dolorosa – Messa a 4 voci (1735)
Crucifixus a 16 voci
Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble/Thomas Hengelbrock
Recorded at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, March 2003
SACD DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 82976 58792 2 [63.07]


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This SACD comes from Harnoncourt protégé Hengelbrock on the label for which he has been active for some time now, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. I should start by saying that I listened to it as a normal CD, not as SACD, so can’t vouch for its potency in that medium. As it is it sounds a very warmly balanced disc with a good balance between individual voices and between the choir and orchestra.

Hengelbrock tends to employ solo singers from within his choir so there are no obviously starry names – not yet at any rate, because he has a knack of employing some fine musicians who go on to forge solo careers. The voices emerge “from the choir” in this recording – sample the opening chorus in Dixit Dominus where soprano, (male) alto and tenor broaden acoustically from the choir (or are made to seem to do so) and are not unduly spotlit in more obviously personality-led performances. Dixit Dominus is a virtuoso work from Handel’s Italian years and demands considerable resources from soloists and chorus, and also from the orchestra, to make its greatest impression. We have a star in the making, maybe, in soprano Andrea Brown, whose very attractive voice, light, agile, mobile - and which has an inherently beautiful sound - is quite able to cut through the taxing divisions of Tecum principium. Tenor Hermann Oswald copes manfully with Dominus a dextris tuis but it lies high for him and he has to force quite a bit. Bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich is quite lightish but agile. What this movement shows us is the startling modernity of Handel’s invention; it’s still amazing to hear the rapped out syllables of conquassabit and no less in this rhythmically pulsing, strongly accented performance. Here as elsewhere dynamics are strongly etched, orchestral colour is paramount, accents are pointed and masculine. The great duet De torrente is seraphic here – others perhaps find more weight of personality but this is still a most attractive reading.

Coupled with Handel is Caldara’s Missa dolorosa with the Crucifixus appended as the final track. Written probably shortly before Caldara’s death this is less of a flamboyant and obviously virtuosic setting than Handel’s. There’s a compelling harmoniousness about it and some very evocative choral writing (the Qui tollis is especially noteworthy in that regard). Opportunities for solo declamation are less apparent but there are still plenty of moments when the soloists impress themselves on the fabric of the choral and orchestral texture. For examples of superior musical compression one could do a lot worse than lend an ear to the tiny Sanctus and the orchestra’s leader Verena Schoneweg impresses in her extended solo in the Benedictus. The sixteen part Crucifixus probably derives from a larger work, a Mass setting in all probability, but has stood the test of history as an independent piece and exists in multiple copies. The woven strands achieve a particularly expressive depth.

The notes are cogent and well written and the performances very sympathetic. The programme has also been revealingly constructed to reflect diverse musical imperatives and settings – constructively so. Certainly a must for the Caldara; if you have the Dixit Dominus (Gardiner’s say) you may well pause but there is real merit in this performance.

Jonathan Woolf


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