When Handel arrived in Italy in 1706 he became acquainted with all the musical genres in vogue at the time. Soon he started to make his own contributions to the vocal catalogue: operas, serenades and chamber cantatas. When he was in Rome it was Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli who became his most important benefactor, and it is also he who offered Handel the opportunity to compose his first oratorio.
Ruspoli organised a series of concerts in his home on Sundays during Lent. On 8 April 1708 Handel's oratorio 'La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo' was performed. A sign of Handel's high reputation at the time was the fact that Ruspoli paid for 1,500 librettos which shows how much attendants were expected on the two consecutive days the performances would take place (Easter Sunday and Monday). Also unusual was the size of the orchestra Handel had at his disposal: 45 instruments, including 21 violins. The leader of this orchestra was none other than Arcangelo Corelli.
Today this oratorio is among Handel's most popular, and several recordings are available. One of them was released only recently, directed by Emmanuelle Haïm. This recording under the direction of Marco Vitale is different from all previous recordings in several respects. Marco Vitale sums them up in his liner-notes.
The main difference is the pitch. This recording is the first to be performed at the low pitch which was common in Rome at the time: a=392Hz. One of the reasons for this may be, as Marco Vitale suggests, that a lower pitch would make the text more clearly understandable. It has an effect on the performance of the parts for the oboes. The keys of the arias with oboe are unnatural, and when played as written the oboist has to deal with complex fngerings. If the music is played at low pitch, the oboist can transpose his part one tone downwards which makes his line much more comfortable.
Vitale also has made his own decisions in regard to the use of the violone and the double-bass respectively. Handel makes a clear distinction between them, but this has caused modern performers some trouble in understanding exactly what he had in mind.
The third aspect is in the use of the trombone. "In the payment list of the first performance (...) we find a trombone
player, but there is no evidence of a trombone in the score or a separate part for it." Vitale then refers to the fact that in contemporary oratorios the orchestra often included an ensemble of two trumpets and one trombone whose parts were not written in the score. This has led him to include the trombone in the basso continuo in those passages where the two trumpets are playing.
Taking all these things into consideration this recording has to be welcomed, and Handel aficionados shouldn't miss it. The average lover of baroque music is probably first and foremost interested in the quality of the interpretation. Can this new recording compete with the recordings which are already available? Despite the merits of this performance I hesitate to answer this question positively.
The main asset of this production is - apart from matters of performance practice - the orchestra, even though I regret that Marco Vitale didn't decide to use the same number of players Handel had at his disposal. It is a very fine ensemble, and the players are all excellent as some of them show in their obbligato parts. I also much enjoyed the performance of the basso continuo. But there are some aspects of this performance which I find disappointing.
Firstly, the team of soloists is uneven. Klaartje van Veldhoven and Stefanie True are both young singers who are at the start of their career, although they have already participated in a respectable number of performances. They both have nice voices and sing their respective parts well. I would probably have liked two more individual voices so as to ensure strong differentiation. Although Stefanie True has the sweeter voice their timbres are too close to easily tell them apart.
Kristine Gether has a most peculiar voice. If I had heard her sing without knowing who she was I would have taken her for a male alto. She has a dark voice, but not very powerful, particularly at the lower end of her tessitura. And the low pitch makes that even more problematic, as in the aria 'Vedo il ciel' in part 2. She also has problems with the runs in 'Naufragando và per l'onde' (part 1).
Marcel Beekman has a clear voice and sings his part with ease. But there is something artificial about his performance. I miss any real passion; to my ears he is too distant. Mitchell Sandler doesn't suffer from that problem, but his voice is not powerful enough to make Lucifero sound as frightful as Handel intended.
It is not just the individual performances which are sometimes disappointing. The interpretation as a whole is not very theatrical and is lacking the dramatic element which is such a feature of Italian oratorio. The recitatives are mostly rather slow, and the performance too rigid, with too little rhythmic freedom. In particular the dialogues, as in 'Ahi dolce mio Signore', lack flexibility and show little interaction between the protagonists. Overall the singing, especially in the recitatives but often also in the arias, is not really speechlike.
Although Handel's La Resurrezione is one of my favourite works I was sometimes bored with this version and my attention waned. That is not a good sign. It is mainly the lack of tension which make me rate this performance not as high as, for instance, Christopher Hogwood's recording. Hogwood not only had a great team of singers but his orchestra was of the same size as Handel's. Despite some stylistic reservations I also prefer the recent recording by Emmanuelle Haïm.
To sum things up: this recording is recommendable to those who have a more than average interest in Handel. Others may enjoy this recording because of the quality of the singing and playing, but should not expect a really dramatic interpretation.
Johan van Veen