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George Frideric HANDEL (1685Ė1759) and John Christopher SMITH (1712Ė1795)
Tobit (1764)
Anna Ė Maya Boog (soprano)
Sarah Ė Linda Perillo (soprano)
Azarias/Raphael Ė Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Tobias Ė Alison Browner (mezzo)
Tobit Ė Knut Schoch (tenor)
Raguel Ė Stephan MacLeod (bass)
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachm Carlos Martini
Rec. live, Koster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany, 3 June 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.570113-14 [76.22 + 80.00]



Johann Christoph Schmidt acted as Handelís principal copyist and assistant from 1756 until Handelís death in 1759; he is commonly known by his English name John Christopher Smith the elder. On Handelís death he received a bequest of all of the composerís manuscripts. His son, John Christopher Smith the younger studied composition with Thomas Roseingrave and Pepusch. In the 1750s he assisted Handel with performances of his oratorios, effectively taking over after the onset of the composerís blindness.
 
The younger Smithís reputation was as a music teacher rather than as a composer and this is borne out by the changes to Handelís manuscripts made for performances after Handel became blind; for the most part Smithís alterations and adaptations are cruder than Handel's.
 
When Smith the elder died, the precious batch of Handel manuscripts passed to his son and he used these as a source for material for a group of pasticcio oratorios. The pasticcio was a popular 18th century form in which pre-existing music was fitted to a new plot. Handel created a number of pasticcio operas using his own and other peopleís music. Some of his oratorios, such as Deborah and The Occasional Oratorio, were effectively self pasticcios as they re-used so much existing material.
 
For a number of his pasticcios, Smith turned to Thomas Morrell who had provided Handel with the librettos of Judas Macabbeus, Alexander Balus, Theodora and Jeptha. Morrell had also provided the English text to The Triumph Truth and Time, the oratorio that Smith and Handel created out of Handelís early Italian piece.
 
Morrellís librettos are by no means the best that Handel set. Charles Jennens had a far stronger dramatic sense. But the composer was able to triumph over the weaknesses in Theodora and Jephta to create works of genius, despite their librettist. Without Handelís dramatic genius though, Morrellís libretto for the pasticcio Tobit is a strange thing.
 
The story concerns Tobit, living in Nineveh under the Jewish captivity. Tobit is persecuted for his piety in burying the dead, contrary to local custom. He suffers greatly and is afflicted by both poverty and blindness. He sends his son Tobias to Media to call in a loan he has made. Tobias travels with his friend Azarias and after various adventures, marries Sarah in Medina and returns home. All ends happily and Azarias turns out to have been the Angel Raphael.
 
But Morrellís libretto plays down the adventures that Tobias and Azarias have. The rescue from the fish barely gets a mention and neither does Tobiasís exorcising of Sarahís demons. The result is peculiarly discursive without ever being very dramatic. This has the effect of putting some spotlight onto Tobit and his persecution, a fact which has led some commentators to wonder whether Morrell and Smith deliberately wanted to make a point about contemporary anti-semitism.
 
Smith took the arias and ensembles from a selection of Handelís works, both opera and oratorio. The works quarried include Esther, Athalia, Deborah, Belshazzar, The Occasional Oratorio, LíAllegro, Semele, Susanna, Hercules, Theodora, Faramondo, Sosarme, Deidamia, Alessandro and Giulio Cesare. Quite a number of these were works which had rather low performance tallies both during Handelís lifetime and after. Smith might have been taking care to give the public novelties which it would not have heard recently. Smith wrote the recitatives and accompanied them himself.
 
In this performance from Joachim Carlos Martini and the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra, Martini has made some adjustments to the score; adding a number of sinfonias to delineate scenes plus some extra arias.
 
The result is attractive without ever being dramatically gripping. The best way to enjoy it is frankly to forget about any pretence to drama and plot. Occasionally there is a mismatch between the original sense of a piece and the new one. One of the worst seems to be the duet As steals the morn upon the night from LíAllegro, which in its new context receives the words To Steal a Grave evín for a Friend.
 
One of my main complaints about this performance is that it lacks drama, but given such an unsatisfactory plot in the first place we canít really complain too much. Martini has assembled an excellent polyglot cast who all acquit themselves well.
 
Alison Browner makes an attractive, warm-voiced Tobias with Barbara Hannigan as a fine soprano Raphael. Hannigan shines in Raphaelís final dramatic accompagnato - written by Smith - and the aria In Jehovaís awful sight from Deborah.
 
As Tobit, Knut Schoch has a pleasant light tenor and a neat way with Handelian fioriture. When Tobit is taxed severely by life, I could have wished for more heft from Schochís voice, but he is never less than accomplished and frequently more so. As his wife Anna, Maya Boog is rather under-used, though her English is strongly accented.
 
Linda Perillo shines as Tobiasís sweetheart, Sarah, with a light, bright voice and a shapely way with phrasing. She copes well with the fioriture in Alleluia from Esther.
 
Stephan MacLeod has a warm baritone voice as Sarahís father Raguel, a role which seems to be remarkably unnecessary. But MacLeod sings his arias with a fine, grainy tone and neat if careful passagework.
 
The Junge Kantorei address the choruses with lively enthusiasm, though their diction is rather occluded at times. The Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra accompany nicely and give neat accounts of the overture from Tamerlano and the various sinfonias included in the work.
 
If you think of this as a recital disc then it is a nice proposition. Just put it on and enjoy some of Handelís finest music in attractive performances.
 
Robert Hugill



 


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