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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Theodora, HVW 68 (1749): "As with rosy steps the morn..." [9.08]; "Bane of virtue, nurse of passions..."[6.42]; "Defend her heavín!"[6.26]; "Lord, to Thee each night and day..." [6.06]; "New scenes of joy..."[6.24]; Serse, HVW 40 (1738):; "Se Bramante díamar..." [6.39]; "Ombra mai Fu..." [3.54]
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Cantata "La Lucrezia" HVW 145 (1709) [20.51]
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson mezzo-soprano
Harry Bicket, conductor, harpsichord, and Chamber Organ;
Stephen Stubbs, lute and baroque Guitar;
Phoebe Carrai, cello; Margriet Tindemans, Viola da gamba.
Notes in English, Français, and Deutsch. Photos of the artists. Texts and translations.
Recorded utilising the DSD system 26 August 2003 at Blackheath Halls, London, UK (arias); 21 March 2004 King Center, Denver, Colorado, USA (cantata).
CD tracks 2.0 stereo, Hybrid SACD Tracks 5.1 surround
AVIE AV0030 [67.01]

 

When performers before the public change their names some confusion inevitably results. This is the same Lorraine Hunt who recorded a complete version of Theodora for Harmonia Mundi in 1991, but this is a new recording, not excerpts from that old recording, which Iíve not heard.

This is also one of the finest vocal recordings in any voice Iíve ever heard. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has a magnificently powerful, pleasant, expressive, controlled voice with extraordinary power at both ends of the range and the dramatic instinct and musical intelligence to make the most of it. What she does not have is a pretty, bright, Italian contralto, hence she cannot dazzle us with flights of coloratura staccato. But she has explored her own capabilities and devised an extensive range of embellishments and ornaments which perfectly suite her voice and this music, so these performances are fully in character and authentic to the period. The only voice of recent memory I can compare her to is that of Kathleen Kuhlmann (Mrs. Lieberson has recorded some of the same roles Ms. Kuhlmann made famous) or, for expressive power, Kathleen Ferrier, but whether it is the repertoire or the recording, the experience of hearing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is comparable to none, no one, nothing Iíve ever heard before.

This disk reminds one forcefully of an important aspect of Handelís art. When his music is sung by talented but not spectacular voices, the pieces seem merely pretty and a bit overlong. But when a true vocal superstar performs them they have an excitement, drama, and power that takes us into another world altogether, as on this record. One need only compare Margaret Ritchie singing "I know that my Redeemer..." or Russell Oberlin in "But who shall abide..." or Jan Peerce or Justino Diáz in "The trumpet shall sound..." with less inspired singers to observe that we have not merely moved up a little along a continuous scale of quality, but have burst into a new dimension entirely. Handelís genius in making possible this miracle is generally understood but not often acknowledged.

The contribution of Harry Bicket and his fellow players to this recording must not be minimised; the jewel of Ms. Liebersonís voice is here set in pure gold. All of the arias in the list at the top of this review are prefaced by their respective recitatives except "Lord, to Thee.." and "Se brammante..." and the timings include these recitatives.

The surround sound recording is unusual. From the photograph in the booklet we see that the musicians were on stage in a large auditorium, the singer with her back to the hall, the musicians in front of her seated in a circle around a microphone. This bears out the experience of listening where there is very little directional quality to the recorded perspective. However, when the soloist reaches a powerful loud note, the ambient contribution from the hall in the rear channels gives the voice a bloom of power and size. Itís a subtle effect, and if your system is not carefully adjusted you may miss it. You may prefer to play the disk in two channel with your regular surround sound decoder switched on and set in an ultra-wide position. The first Theodora aria is accompanied by double-basses recorded so realistically you can use it (I did) to adjust critically your system and speakers for low range definition. Naturally, I would have preferred a "stage" surround sound mix with the accompanying instruments spaced around the room to give me the illusion of being present and in the middle of things.

The CD tracks are remarkably near in quality to the two channel SACD tracks.

The original audiences were bored so nearly to death by Theodora that it closed after three performances, the worst flop Handel ever experienced. What extenuating circumstances may have contributed may only be guessed at. The story is tragic, the music almost unrelievedly sombre. Handel himself said, "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story and the ladies will not come because it [is] a virtuous one."* While audiences did not care for Theodora, Handel and some of his musically knowledgeable friends thought it to be one of his better works, and apparently Lorraine Hunt Lieberson thinks so also, and brilliantly makes her point with this recording which will leave you humming tunes youíve likely never heard before.

The Cantata "La Lucrezia" is also a tragic story, an Italian cantata from Handelís early years which again gives Mrs. Lieberson another vehicle for her exceptionally compelling tragic style. The accompaniment is very imaginative use of a small group of instrumentalists recorded very close with the soloist.

With Serse, the mood lightness a bit from sombre tragedy to a uniquely Handellian kind of English genteel graciousness, unique in Handelís time that is but resurrected by Elgar early in the last century where he called it "nobilmente."

*This quote, which is new to me, supports my observation, previously expressed in this forum, that Handel consciously aimed his music in part to a Jewish audience, and lends a little credence to my controversial assertion that his sympathies with that audience were based in part on personal conviction. Since this is his sole religious drama set in Christian times and his worst failure, the aptness of his strategy seems to be proven.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Christopher Webber



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