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Thomas Arne: Artaxerxes / Goodman, Robson, Partridge, Spence, Bott

Arne / Bott / Hyde / Robson / Spence
Release Date: 11/10/2009 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 22073   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Thomas Augustine Arne
Performer:  Patricia SpenceRichard Edgar-WilsonIan PartridgePhilippa Hyde,   ... 
Conductor:  Roy Goodman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Parley of Instruments
Number of Discs: 2 
Length: 2 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ARNE Artaxerxes Roy Goodman, cond; Christopher Robson ( Artaxerxes ); Ian Partridge ( Artabanes ); Patricia Spence ( Arbaces ); Richard Edgar-Wilson ( Rimenes ); Catherine Bott ( Mandane ); Philippa Hyde ( Semira ); Parley of Instruments (period instruments) Read more HYPERION 22073 (2 CDs: 140:16 Text and Translation)

Mine Editor has repeatedly told me that reviews of previously released content, unless archival, should be kept short. With this release from 1995, however, I think a longer consideration is merited. The work’s quality, that of its performances, the absence of any previous Fanfare review, and the low re-release price lead me to this conclusion.

When Arne’s Artaxerxes became a Covent Garden hit in the winter of 1762, it was hardly the first use of its subject. The libretto was based on a 1729 Metastasio original that had been set by Vinci, Hasse, Jommelli, Graun, Gluck, J. C. Bach, and Teradellas (whose Artaserse I reviewed in Fanfare 33:2), among numerous others. The attraction of its melodramatic situations—stemming from a general who seeks to kill his king, inadvertently planting the evidence of another death that leads to his own son being accused of murder—is obvious. So is the dense, constantly shifting web of relationships among the six members of the royal household. No one apparently objected at the time to the English adaptation, made by Arne himself; or if they did, it’s no longer on record. The composer’s lyrics are at best stiff, banal, and plodding, at worst, reaching down to McGonagall level: “Acquit thee of this foul Offence,/Return with spotless Innocence;/Then shall my hapless Brother see/That never Sister lov’d like me!” Metastasio, who took infinite care over the beauty of his librettos’ language, would have burnt his books and set up trade as a butcher upon reading that.

The music is considerably better. Arne had a knack for musical versatility—or more properly, for creating arias that fit into one of several predetermined formats whose successful design he understood as an experienced writer for the stage. In “In Infancy, our Hopes and Fears,” with its featured clarinets and horns, he creates a good English tune with a simple, effective accompaniment. As much is true of the memorable “Let not Rage thy Bosom firing,” and “O let the Danger of a Son,” with its broad melody given wings by a fast-moving bass. There are the inevitable bravura pieces, such as “Amid a thousand racking Woes,” sung at the original performance by two of the greatest castratos of the period. Another specialty is the charming cantabile aria, such as “O too lovely, too unkind,” tailored from the finest modern Italian cloth; while “Why is Death for ever late” is a minor-key serenade that combines this galant mode with more than a nod in Purcell’s direction. Arne also gets a great deal of mileage out of arias employing a kind of proto-parlando texture, the vocal cadences and rhythms almost spoken, the accompanying strings supplying a furious energy. “Tho’ oft a Cloud, with envious Shade” is a good example, and “If the River’s swelling Waves” still better. The latter really contains two melodies: one a figure caught in the garrulous strings’ busy web; the other, a slower, more dramatic one, for soprano. Arne combines these ingeniously, occasionally trading off their services as accompaniment.

Changing tastes led to the eclipse of Artaxerxes , but in conservative Britain it was still being performed into the early 19th century. More recently, it has enjoyed a few revivals using a version with altered secco recitatives and some anachronistic content by Henry Bishop (he of “Home Sweet Home” fame); but on this recording, Peter Holman, musical director of The Parley of Instruments, restores the pre-Bishop recitatives, re-creates missing ones, and borrows content from Arne’s Comus to provide the missing final chorus.

Several of the artists heard here will be familiar from other releases. I can still recall with pleasure Catherine Bott’s rendition of “Under the Greenwood Tree,” from Walton’s music to a filmed version of As You Like It (Chandos 10436). Her Mandane provides not just a delicately sung “Let not Rage thy Bosom firing,” but one that is sensitively interpreted, while “The Soldier, tir’d of War’s Alarms” shows what this singer, usually associated with thoughtful tempos and dulcet-toned songs, can achieve in the way of more vigorous declamation, and perfectly even runs and figures. (Goodman’s solid allegro lets the broad martial tune expand its sway to full value, without rushing matters: good for him.) As much can be said of mezzo Patricia Spence’s assumption of Arbaces. Her “By that belov’d Embrace” is a good opportunity to hear both her velvet cantilena and her tightly focused, steely strength. “Amid a thousand racking Woes,” is a fireworks piece of enormous difficulty that she dispatches with marked success, despite a bit of sketchy passagework in the last third.

For the rest, Ian Partridge, who began his solo career in 1962, proves himself another one of those singers whose work ignores the ravages of time. There’s certainly no evidence of age’s effects in “Thou, like the glorious Sun,” where divisions, sturdy tone, breath support, and enunciation all point to a voice in its prime. Richard Edgar-Wilson’s brighter tone and close attention to dynamic shading gives his singing an almost intimate air among so many public figures—appropriate for the score’s cynic. Philippa Hyde’s sweetly lyrical soprano is not as clear in her consonants as she should be, but Christopher Robson combines clarity with an attractive tone—would he were a bit more willing to emote outside recitatives. Goodman is a long way in this work from his old reputation as “the human metronome,” being both flexible in his phrasing, and sensitive to his material and his singers. The Parley of Instruments is, as usual, first-rate.

In short, if you enjoy Baroque opera, and haven’t purchased this one before, now is an excellent time to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Artaxerxes by Thomas Augustine Arne
Performer:  Patricia Spence (Mezzo Soprano), Richard Edgar-Wilson (Tenor), Ian Partridge (Tenor),
Philippa Hyde (Soprano), Catherine Bott (Soprano), Colin Campbell (Bass),
Charles Gibbs (Bass), Christopher Robson (Countertenor)
Conductor:  Roy Goodman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Parley of Instruments
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1762/1777; England 
Date of Recording: 03/1995 
Length: 140 Minutes 4 Secs. 
Language: English 

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