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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Timotheus oder Die Gewalt der Musik (1812)
(German version of Alexander’s Feast - or, the Power of Music (1735/3), orch. Mozart 1790)
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano); Werner Güra (tenor); Gerard Finley (bass-baritone)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 28-29 November 2012, Musikverein, Vienna. DDD
SONY CLASSICAL 88883 704812 [62:00 + 34:00]

This is a live recording of a concert which marked the bicentenary of the founding of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna on 29 November 1812 and the defeat of Napoleon in Moscow. The latter, heralded the possibility of Austria’s liberation from their forced allegiance to the French. It was thus both a cultural and a political, patriotic statement, with Timotheus representing Austrian musical supremacy and Alexander the Emperor who is in thrall to the musician’s art.
The concert sought to recreate the performance of “Timotheus”, the German version of Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast”, whose score for a German translation had been prepared by Mozart for the Society of Nobleman in 1790 and which served as the basis of the 1812 celebration. It has so much going for it: Nikolaus Harnoncourt a few days before his 83rd birthday, in the mature plenitude of his powers evincing no sign of flagging and directing a very beefed up orchestra in a performance. I quote the excellent notes: “the Concentus Musicus fielded as many players as could be accommodated on the platform in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, while the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde was made up of hundred or so singers … to recreate the sort of massed sounds produced in 1812 in a large hall.”
The excitement of the occasion is enhanced by the raucous, atmospheric period horns and a truly impressive bass drum. This was added to Mozart’s orchestration by the first conductor, Franz von Mosel, who, to control these large forces, used a baton for the first time in the history of music. The choir is terrific and the playing both technically and aesthetically of the finest. The recorded sound is big and warm.
Combine with this admixture the presence of the wonderful Gerald Finley and the whole enterprise looks so promising. Finley in fact has relatively little to do - only two arias and a snippet of recitative - though he does it with such authority and panache. The other two soloists, however, have a much larger contribution, and there’s the rub: they are both disappointing. Werner Güra brings a slight, strangulated tenor to his music and very little variety of tone. He struggles with the coloratura and is audibly short of breath, at times gasping before the runs. Italian period-specialist soprano Roberta Invernizzi is worse: it astonishes me that a singer can go through training, begin performing then be regularly engaged by prestigious institutions while carrying a vocal handicap that will inevitably preclude a major career. In this case it is an applied, wobbly vibrato that she has a habit of suddenly unleashing like a Taser after long, swelled notes without any pulse at all. She also has a tic of squeezing and primping phrases in a manner that is clearly meant to be winsomely expressive but increasingly becomes merely irritating. It seems she can sing absolutely nothing straight and rely on Handel’s music to do the job. Surely better could have been found for such a major musical event? As such, what could have been a landmark recording and a real testament to “The Power of Music” becomes a might-have-been.
The much smaller scale English original is by no means the same entity but for the best of what is some of Handel’s most winning music, I return to the old, 1978 Philip Ledger recording on EMI Classics. Despite also having a tenor less than ingratiating, it features Thomas Allen, who is no second-best if I cannot have Finley, and the sopranos Helen Donath and Sally Burgess are simply lovely.
Ralph Moore