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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Semele - Secular Oratorio in Three Acts (1743-4) [181:22]
Elisabeth Scholl (soprano) - Semele
Julla Schmidt (soprano) - Iris
Ralf Popken (counter-tenor) - Athamas
Britta Schwarz (alto) - Ino
Annette Markert (alto) - Juno
Knut Schoch (tenor) - Jupiter/Apollo
Klaus Mertens (bass) - Cadmus/Somnus/Chief Priest of Juno
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. live, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany, 27th May, 2007.  DDD.
Notes and synopsis in English and German. 
Libretto not included but promised online.
NAXOS 8.570431-33 [3 CDs: 60:14 + 51:39 + 69:29] 
Experience Classicsonline

We now have a choice of versions of Semele in the lowest price bracket: Alto’s 2-CD reissue of the Somary version (ALC2003), which first appeared on Vanguard, and the new
Naxos on 3 CDs.  The Alto version is slightly abridged and most da capo repeats are not taken, which mainly accounts for the different lengths of the two versions: 144:00 on Alto, 181:00 on Naxos. 

Apart from ‘Where’er you walk’, Semele is one of the least-known of Handel’s works, not for any lack of inspiration on Handel’s part but because it didn’t chime with the public mood.  It certainly deserves to be better known and I am pleased that we now have two inexpensive versions to tempt prospective purchasers. 

The Alto recording has a cast who were all better-known in their day than the Naxos singers are today – Sheila Armstrong, Helen Watts, Robert Tear and Felicity Palmer were all first-rank soloists and the rest of the cast were almost as well known.  Add the fact that the English Chamber Orchestra and Johannes Somary, with many of the same singers, made a number of recordings of Handel oratorios, on modern instruments but observing many period practices, and it is obvious that his version has a strong claim, as I made clear when I recommended it last year: “In the absence of a really firm front-runner, this Alto reissue is competitive, especially with its price advantage.” – see review. 

Somary’s Overture begins expansively but not unduly so; in the main, the tempo here is just right, especially in the Gavotte which concludes it.  He takes 5:59 in total, whereas Martini, whose Gavotte is separately tracked, runs to 5:11+2:23 – really rather too ponderous in parts, though the actual Gavotte sounds lively enough.  Matters are complicated by Somary’s tendency to omit repeats and Martini’s to include them, but this impression that the new recording sounds a shade too ponderous by comparison with Somary runs throughout the whole work.  On my first listen-through without making notes, my overall impression was, in fact, that this new version was much slower than the Somary; on more detailed listening with comparisons, I find that I was for the most part objectively incorrect.  Most individual recitatives and arias are actually faster at Martini’s hands, a reminder that tempo is only part of the picture.

What I think was to blame for that first impression was the quality of the singing.  Elisabeth Scholl’s Semele just isn’t a match for Sheila Armstrong on Alto – she makes too heavy weather of the part by comparison.  In fact, despite her impressive CV or resumé, as given in the booklet, I just didn’t like her in the part.  Martini sets a brisk tempo for her set-piece aria ‘Myself I shall adore’ but she gets off to a poor start by swallowing the first word and she never really sounds as if she is enjoying herself in this aria; her tone on the high notes is decidedly thin. 

Somary sets a steadier pace (7:29 against Martini’s 6:47) but Sheila Armstrong not only hits the high notes more securely, she really does sound as if she is enjoying and adoring herself – and the listener responds accordingly.  Whereas with Scholl the trills sound artificial, with Armstrong they sound quite natural.  Armstrong does, of course, employ much more vibrato than is normal in these post-Kirkby times, but I’d much rather that than the thinner tones which we get from Scholl. 

Somary’s singers are all Anglophones with the exception of Justino Diaz, whose English presents no problem; Martini’s are not.  Though the diction on Naxos is not a major problem, all things considered, none of the vocalists sounds much more at home than Scholl in her ‘big’ aria. 

The other set-piece, of course, is Jupiter’s ‘Where’er you walk’.  Here again Somary’s tempo is more sedate – 6:47 for the recitative and aria against Martini’s 1:33+3:28, Naxos again offering more track divisions than Alto.  Knut Schoch’s English is much more idiomatic than Scholl’s, though not completely unforced – there’s a very slightly intrusive h in ‘whereher’ – and his rendition of the aria is more convincing than hers.  Robert Tear makes a much more credibly commanding Jupiter in the preceding recitative ‘By my command’, adding just the right touch of tenderness at the end of that recit.  Perhaps he treats ‘Where’er you walk’ a little too much as a display piece at first, but the more relaxed tempo brings real emotion, too, especially in the reprise.  Both singers avoid over-sentimentalising this aria without trivialising it. 

If Armstrong and Tear sound as if they are enjoying themselves more in these set arias, that is symptomatic of the difference between the two versions: the performers on Alto sound as if they are enjoying their roles and conveying that enjoyment to the listener, whereas everything on the Naxos version sounds more studied.  The Naxos is advertised as a live recording, though the only indication of an audience is the applause at the end; paradoxically, it is the Alto version that has more of the liveliness which one associates with a live performance. 

Even the happy ending, from Athamas’s aria ‘Despair no more shall move me’ (Naxos CD3, tr. 28) to the end of the opera sounds a little too studied to be convincing.  As with the Semele and Jupiter, Ralf Popken as Athamas is no match for Mark Deller on the Somary recording: he sings all the right notes but he doesn’t really sound ‘inside’ the role.  Klaus Mertens as Cadmus gets only a recitative, which he sings well (tr.29) – not much chance to emote here.  At 2:10 the Sinfonia (tr.30) really seems to drag.  Knut Schoch as Apollo makes a better fist of his accompagnato ‘Apollo comes’ (tr.31) than he did of ‘Where’er you walk, but his promise ‘to relieve your care’ still sounds rather studied – and was it a good idea to get him to combine the two different roles?  Nor did I feel that the final chorus (tr.32) sounded as happy as the words should imply, though the applause, faded out, seems to imply that the audience enjoyed it.

The Somary recording ends on a happier note, though he cuts Athamas’s aria and Cadmus’s recitative.  The Sinfonia (Alto CD2, tr.17) is much livelier than Martini’s; Edgar Fleet’s Apollo really does sound as if he will relieve all care and the final chorus is really rousing, though the actual tempo is very little faster than Martini’s (Alto combine Apollo and the Chorus on one track, tr.18, at 4:31, while Naxos’s final two tracks run for 1:06+3:48).  If the Alto recording had been live, the ending would surely have been rapturously applauded. 

The Naxos recording is offered in more recent DDD sound, but the ADD Somary recording holds its own well. If anything, the older recording sounds slightly more realistic: it seems to have been improved between its Regis and Alto reissues. 

Though housed in a slim-line case, the Alto comes complete with libretto.  I’ve commented before about Naxos referring the prospective purchaser to an online version of the text, which has not always been available at the time of review, even when I have waited several weeks after the release date.  Such was the case at one time with Vivaldi’s Griselda and such was the case with this recording although it is now avalable In the meantime, my colleague Robert Hugill went ahead with his review, which I find concurs very closely with my reservations, especially concerning the title role. 

If you don’t mind having Semele slightly abridged, therefore, the older recording has the edge, not least in that it costs 33% less than the Naxos.  As I said last year, until a really clear winner comes along, it will do very nicely.  It’s the one that I shall return to – in fact, I now warm to it even more than I did before. 

If you want something closer to authenticity, John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of Water Music, Concerti Grossi, Op.3, Israel in Egypt, The Ways of Zion and Semele were reissued in a 6-CD budget box last year: Warner 2564698385, around £25 in the UK.

Brian Wilson
see also Review by Robert Hugill


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