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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Italian Solo Cantatas

Crudel tiranno Amor, HWV97 [15:56]
Ah! Che troppo ineguali, HWV230 [14:06]
Tra le fiamme, HWV170 [21:04]
Adele Stolte (soprano)
Members of the Händel-Festspielorchester, Halle/Thomas Sanderling.
rec. Halle Volkspark, Germany, May 1970.  ADD.
Italian texts included; partial English and German translation.
BERLIN CLASSICS 0013972BC [51:16]
Experience Classicsonline

The black-and-white photograph of Adele Stolte on the cover proclaims that these are performances from another age – not just literally, in the sense that they were recorded in Communist East Germany well before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The measured, but not stodgy opening of Crudel tiranno sets the pace for old-style Handel performances.  At first I thought them good of their kind – more or less the equivalent of Karl Richter’s Bach Cantatas which, as I have recently said, are still well worth hearing – but I soon revised that opinion and they eventually became wearisome.
 
At about the time that these recordings were made, I remember buying some East German recording tape in Tottenham Court Road.  When I complained that it produced awful recordings on my Ferrograph reel-to-reel recorder – then regarded as the acme of recorders – I was told that the tape was of the highest quality; the fault lay in the fact that the bias of my Ferrograph was not set up to appreciate it.  My attitude to these recordings is rather akin to the bias of that recorder – we’re no longer set up to appreciate the style. 
 
One person in particular is to blame – or, rather, praise – for this state of affairs: Emma Kirkby.  With all the good will in the world, I cannot help comparing Stolte in Tra le fiamme with Kirkby’s performance of that work on a splendid super-budget-price Eloquence recording (476 7468) which I reviewed last year – see also RH’s review.  I frequently insist that timings don’t tell the whole story, but the huge discrepancy between Stolte’s 21:04 and Kirkby’s 17:00 tells at least part of this story.
 
Heard without remembering the Kirkby/Hogwood version, no doubt this account of Tra le fiamme would pass muster – it doesn’t sound as ponderous as the timings might suggest – not least because Stolte has a potentially fine voice.  Some may even prefer her ‘larger’ tone to Kirkby; I’m not among them, though there are things to admire – it’s just that Kirkby has virtually set the benchmark for music of this period.  Stolte even attempts a few ornaments, but they sound out of keeping with her general style.  It sounds rather like Callas trying occasionally to sing in period style – in fact, there is an unpleasant edge, an almost-off-the-note quality, to Stolte’s voice at times which reminds me of Callas, of whom I’m no great fan. 
 
Indeed, at times the voice is definitely under strain – surprisingly so for a singer whose Bach Cantata recordings in the late 1950s and 1960s were acclaimed as models of good practice. Tra le fiamme starts very promisingly, but the promise is not borne out.
 
In the other cantatas these vocal faults are less noticeable, though far from entirely absent – perhaps they were made on an off-day – the opening aria of Crudel tiranno is particularly effective, though once again, here and in Ah! Che troppo ineguali, the promising start is not sustained.  One reviewer of her Beethoven Lieder on a DG collection also found her voice “edgy and not very steady”, suggesting that this was not her only off-day.
 
The instrumentalists are no authenticists – in 1970 modern-instrument players had yet to learn from period-instrumentalists, with the honourable exception of groups like the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.  Tempi, as I have indicated are a little on the stately side and there is little or no attempt at ornamentation, but this is playing that I can live with: of its kind it is, in fact, very good.  Thomas Sanderling’s credentials as a Bach and Handel conductor are almost as secure as those of Karl Richter.
 
The recordings, originally made by VEB, are more than adequate.  The balance between vocalist and instruments is near-ideal – if anything, better than that on the reissued Christophe Coin recording of three Bach Cantatas which I recently praised (E8918).
 
The notes are informative and idiomatically translated.  The original Italian texts are given in full, but only parts are translated (within the body of the notes rather than alongside the texts).
 
Heard once on Radio 3 or at a concert, these performances might do well enough.  For repeated hearing, they just don’t pass muster.  The music itself is sufficiently attractive to survive the experience, but after hearing these performances several times, I had to listen to the Emma Kirkby CD again – now that really is worth buying and hearing repeatedly.  I repeat its catalogue number: 476 7468.  And remember that it sells for about half the price of this Berlin Classics CD.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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