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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Il Ritorno di Tobia (1775) [169:04]
Vokal Ensemble Köln, Capella Augustina/Andreas Spering
rec. Sendesaal des Funkauses Köln, Germany, September 2006
NAXOS 8.570300-2 [3 CDs: 55:28 + 58:16 + 55:20]

This is a real find and a welcome addition to the Naxos catalogue. Haydn is justifiably famous for his oratorios The Seasons and The Creation. The latter has been recorded by these artists for Naxos to great acclaim. Now Andreas Spering and his Capella Augustina have unearthed Haydn’s first, all but forgotten oratorio, The Return of Tobias. The apocryphal subject of Tobias and the angel was extraordinarily popular in Haydn’s Vienna when he was composing this work, and he chose to home in on the section of the story when Tobias (Tobia) returns from his long absence from home and, with the help of his friend Asaria, aka the Archangel Raphael in disguise, cures his father’s blindness. Haydn takes this as an opportunity to create an oratorio which, while not as pacy or fast-moving as The Seasons and The Creation, contains much of beauty, and some very virtuosic singing for both chorus and soloists. Popular as the Tobias legend was in 1775, however, it quickly fell out of favour. It was furthermore felt that Haydn’s oratorio was too long (nearly 3 hours) and difficult to be easily revived so it fell out of favour and has barely been heard since. Length is less of an issue when you listen at home and, thankfully, the artists involved here make this difficult score seem all but effortless.
The first accolades have to go to the young soloists. We might hope that Nikolay Borchev would have sounded a little more weighty as Tobit, the blind father, but he brings pathos and sympathy to what could have seemed a dry character. His opening aria, Ah tu m’ascolta, oh Dio appropriately invokes sympathy for a man who seems to have lost all sympathisers on earth. Similarly Anders J. Dahlin is perhaps less forthcoming than we would expect from the hero of the story, but he brings a wonderfully mellifluous tone to the character of Tobias himself, from his first aria upon his return to his parental home, until the final miracle when his father is healed. The outstanding contributions, however, come from the three women soloists. Anna, Tobias’ aged mother, is characterfully sung by Ann Hallenberg. Her rich, fruity mezzo is perfect for the tone of despair the character needs at the opening, and she lightens her tone admirably when the mood of the piece turns more joyful in Part 2. Listen to her exciting opening aria (CD1, Track 4) and you will see how Haydn can create instant interest in the character, as well as how seemingly easily Hallenberg copes with it. Her nightmare aria is Part 2 is thrilling. Sophie Karthäuser tailors her tone to handle Tobias’ virtuous and dutiful wife, Sara. Most admirable of all, however, is Roberta Invernizzi, singing the role of Raphael. The angel is given appropriately difficult, often stratospheric music and Invernizzi sings it with flawless coloratura and effortless command of the technique.
The chorus seems totally convinced by this work and they throw themselves into their parts as if they were singing opera, which it often feels like they are. Two moments to watch out for: their fugal chorus that ends Part One is particularly exciting, and their stormy Part 2 chorus, Svanisce in un momento was resurrected by Haydn as his concert motet Insanae et vanae curae. The Capella Augustina, a period ensemble founded by Andreas Spering himself, plays this music as if it were written for it, and the chamber textures that Haydn is fond of using sound perfectly judged. Listen to Sarah’s Part 2 aria, Non parmi esser fra gl’uomini for a good example of how well orchestra and soloists blend. Spering holds the whole thing together with assured control, but also a sense of spontaneity, as if the music is unfolding in precisely the correct manner. This CD is a welcome addition to the catalogue, and something worthy to set alongside the other great achievements of Haydn’s middle period. Three cheers to Naxos for choosing to give it such a distinguished outing on CD. The booklet contains commentary, synopsis and Italian texts, but no translations.
Simon Thompson


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