With Athalia, Neumann has achieved another notable success... Despite the considerable virtues of the Hogwood recording [NLA], my feeling is that the new Neumann comfortably surpasses it. In the spheres alike of conducting, orchestral playing, and recording, there is a trade-off to be observed. Unusually for him, Neumann sets somewhat headlong tempos in two or three of the faster arias, where Hogwood might be called more rationally moderate. But though Neumann’s singers are thereby pushed to the limit in terms of vocal poise and verbal precision, the gain in dramatic urgency provides abundant compensation; and this result is enhanced both by the powerfully propulsive bass line that, more typically, he draws from his Cologne-based orchestraRead more and by Werner Dabringhaus’s ideally clear and at the same time resonant recording. At times, indeed, the contribution of the Collegium Cartusianum’s brasses and of timpanist Martin Piechotta, thwacking away mightily with his wooden sticks in the big choruses, attains to a degree of boisterousness that might almost be considered too much of a good thing—but I love it myself. There is, in any case, no lack of more subtle effects, such as the sheer velvet beauty of the string figurations in Joad’s act-III air with chorus, “Jerusalem, thou shalt no more a tyrant’s guilty reign deplore.” So far as the two choruses are concerned, it should be noted that Hogwood’s uses boy sopranos and exclusively male altos, whereas the 28-member Cologne Chamber Choir has female sopranos and a mix of female and male altos. Personal preference in this regard may point collectors in one or the other direction. I find both groups excellent, but again, effects like the dramatic choral staccatos in the final chorus of act II are more compellingly brought off by the German ensemble.
Among the solo performances, the most striking successes in the new set are not exactly where I expected to find them. Reviewing a disc of Handel duets conducted by Alan Curtis, I made bold to call Simone Kermes “one of the greatest Handel singers of our time.” Her performance here as Athalia is again exciting, and she easily trumps Sutherland dramatically with a characterization of sometimes positively shrewish vividness. But the two other sopranos, the Ukrainian Olga Pasichnyk and the Norwegian Trine Wilsberg Lund, achieve even more mellifluous results in this particular performance. Singing with winning lyric lightness of tone but also with a clean, firm line, Pasichnyk makes Emma Kirkby’s Josabeth sound a touch too “in your face”; and Wilsberg Lund, no less charming as the young king Joas, is vocally more accomplished than the boy soprano in Hogwood’s version. Surprisingly again, the young American tenor Thomas Cooley proves at least the peer of the much more experienced Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the plausible but unpleasant apostate priest Mathan, and Wolf Matthias Friedrich similarly matches and even surpasses David Thomas’s familiar virtues as the honest soldier Abner. For the crucial role of the Jewish high priest Joad, moreover, Neumann has found his best countertenor yet. Born in Buenos Aires (though described in the French version of the booklet biography as of Italian origin), Martín Oro possesses a voice of beguiling warmth which he deploys with both firmness and delicacy, and may well please many listeners (no doubt including my former colleague Ralph V. Lucano) more than Hogwood’s authoritative but somewhat aggressive-sounding James Bowman.
Vocal embellishments throughout are conceived and carried out in admirably natural style, and though Anglophone listeners may find an occasional vowel from one or another singer in Neumann’s cast slightly foreign-sounding, there is nothing like the mangling of the language that disfigured Martini’s performance. Altogether, then, this may be accounted a near-ideal presentation of a work that every Handelian, and for that matter every potential Handelian, needs to know. What wonderful music this is! To know it, I venture to suggest, is to love it.
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