Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have long been celebrated for their recordings and performances of Handel. Over the past three decades Harry Christophers and his award-winning ensemble have expanded their Handel repertoire to take in his greatest works. They have also made numerous recordings of Handel’s masterpieces and this twelve CD boxed set features a selection of some of their finest discs along with three remarkable solo albums featuring The Sixteen’s celebrated orchestra and acclaimed sopranos Sarah Connolly, Ann Murray and Elin Manahan Thomas.
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
By any standards this is a major release. Even in a year which is seeing, predictably, a glut of Handel releases, many of them extremely fine, this stands out. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have enjoyed tremendous success at home and abroad with performances that have caught the imagination of a public outside (as well as inside) the traditional concert hall (and, to add a quick plug, they will be the subject of next month’s cover story). And here, perhaps more than in any other of their excellent recent issues, they show just why.
This is an opulently sung and played Handel disc but also a cunning one. Christophers has thought deeply about how to pace these works, how to marshall his resources for maximum but never superficial effect. The opening of
Zadok the Priest, for instance, so familiar to us all, is here subdued, hushed and steady. When the melody opens out, The Sixteen add power and sheen, giving a sudden surge. It reminds one of the historian Charles Burney's observation of Handel (quoted by Christophers) that "when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud".
A tremendous issue. One to keep on the shelves and return to frequently.
-- Gramophone [4/2009]
A good modern recording of Samson is overdue. It is extraordinary that this fine work, composed within weeks of Messiah, and in Handel’s day possibly the most popular of all his oratorios, should be represented on the Gramophone Database only by one version recorded nearly 20 years ago and the unidiomatic and heavily cut Harnoncourt recording made in 1992. The new one does not obliterate memories of the old, which captures performances by a generation of British Handel interpreters at their finest (Dame Janet Baker, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, Benjamin Luxon and John Shirley-Quirk, as well as several admirable younger singers). But the new version gives a complete and straightforward account of the work, in tune with styles of Handel performance favoured today. Except in one particular: most conductors of period-instrument groups tend to favour faster tempos than those Harry Christophers generally chooses. This is a decidedly leisurely reading of the work; clearly Christophers has a sense of its magnitude, of the big issues with which it is involved and the nobility of its utterance, and he will not let himself be hurried. I think there are times, especially in the final act, where quicker tempos would have been helpful towards the maintenance of the oratorio’s momentum. Similarly, I wish that he had moved a shade more swiftly during the recitatives, and – or this may be the editors – from one number to the next, simply to sustain the dramatic impetus more strongly. I suspect, however, that Christophers is probably less concerned with the drama of the work than with its religious and philosophical aspects, and of course with presenting a direct and faithful realization of it: a perfectly legitimate approach and one that I am sure many will applaud.
He has an excellent cast. Thomas Randle is well equipped for Samson, a firm, strong tenor, with a hint of baritonal quality in his middle and lower registers. There is no bombast here. “Total eclipse” has much of pathos but no heroics. “Why does the God of Israel sleep” is done with some power, and the renunciation of Dalila (“Your charms to ruin”) is weightily sung; and there is plenty of fire in his rejection of the Philistine braggart Harapha but never at the cost of musical singing. It is not strongly characterized: an estimable performance but one that does not quite catch you by the throat. Samson’s father Manoah is sung with characteristic warmth and depth of tone and feeling by Michael George: listen for example to his “Thy glorious deeds” in Act 1. His bass contrasts aptly with the tauter, more focused one of Jonathan Best’s Harapha. Mark Padmore contributes some well-placed singing as both the Israelite and the Philistine man. Lynne Dawson does the same as the woman from both camps (and also the Virgin, echoing Dalila in one appealing number); she contributes a vigorous “Let the bright seraphim” (which here has a brief choral section at the end, surviving in Handel’s manuscript but probably never heard before). I enjoyed Lynda Russell’s soft, seductive Dalila, a modest role, confined to Act 2; but perhaps above all Catherine Wyn-Rogers excels as Micah, with beautifully intense singing and concentrated tone in all her music – her phrasing in “Then long eternity” and the heartfelt expression in “Return O God of hosts”, for example, are quite outstanding. Stylistically the performance is cautious, with only modest added ornamentation and brief cadenzas, but of course the requisite appoggiaturas in the recitative: if an error, it’s certainly in the right direction.
The Sixteen provide clear and spirited choral singing throughout, suitably jolly in the Philistine music, duly noble in that for the Hebrews. I was struck by the unusual clarity of texture in the choruses, attributable both to Christophers’s direction and insistence on firm tone and incisive articulation and to the work of the engineers. Altogether a welcome issue.'
-- Stanley Sadie, Gramophone [8/1997]
"There can be little question that the true heroes of the present recording are Christophers, who conducts the work with a fervent conviction that makes the excellent Hogwood look at times a little prosaic, and his quite magnificent chorus, who sing throughout with an incisive precision, superb articulation, and clarity of diction that is often electrifying. Michael Chance sings a wonderful Priest (his intensely moving “O Jordan, Jordan” is one of the highlights of the set) that eclipses that of Drew Minter, and Nancy Argenta provides a poignant reminder of the singer she was with a radiantly joyful “Praise the Lord.” Haman, the one character of real interest (there are surely pre-echoes of Saul in his downfall), is powerfully sung by Michael George...this is a quite splendid performance of a work more often mentioned by historians than heard, a fate it certainly does not deserve."
-- Brian Robins, Fanfare
"Like most Coro releases to date, this is a reissue of a disc originally put out by the now-defunct Collins Classics label. The present disc dispenses with services of The Sixteen to feature three of the Italian cantatas composed during Handel’s prodigious Italian sojourn (1706–1710), all of those here dating from the first half of 1707. The most conventional in form is Clori, mia bella, a pastoral in which—over the course of four brief da capo arias alternating with secco recitative—a young man experiences the varying emotions attached to the uncertainties of love. The spirit of the piece is none too serious, Handel’s music utterly delicious. Both the other cantatas are more ambitiously planned, providing ample evidence of the young composer’s often-innovative approach to the form. Armida abbandonata, scored for just two violins and continuo, but here done with a fuller body of strings, has as its subject the abandonment of the sorceress Armida by the Christian knight Rinaldo as related in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, a topic to which Handel was to return in his first London opera, Rinaldo. It opens with a remarkable accompanied recitative in which the singer is accompanied by two violins senza basso, then proceeds to a heartbroken aria of ravishing beauty, and a highly dramatic accompanied dramatic recitative in which the scorned Armida gives vent to her conflicting emotions.
The semidramatic Delirio amoroso is designed on an even grander scale, the vocal writing being more virtuosic, with each of its arias having an obbligato part. The text by Handel’s Roman patron Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili also taps into the fashionable Arcadian theme. In her delirium, the scorned and distraught Chloris follows her unfaithful dead lover to Hades, only to be rejected once more. Out of compassionate love, she leads him to Elysium, where a beautiful Entrée prefigures the idea of Gluck’s blessed spirits.
The much admired, indeed much loved, Irish mezzo Ann Murray makes no pretence of being an early-music singer, but she brings considerable style to these splendid examples of Handel’s burgeoning flair and invention. The voice itself sounds lovely, and it is produced with an enviable ease, floating and phrasing Handel’s wonderful melodies with real musicality. Equally as important are Murray’s strong powers of communication and feeling for text."
-- Brian Robins, Fanfare
Heroes and Heroines / Sarah Connolly
"And the mezzo lode continues to run as rich and high-quality as ever, supplying the world with yet another first-rate singer. Of course, Sarah Connolly hasn't exactly come out of nowhere: she's been a member of The Sixteen Choir and has made acclaimed appearances for the past several years in opera roles and concerts throughout the U.S. and Europe. This collaboration with her former Sixteen conductor, Harry Christophers, reveals the impressive maturity and technique of Connolly along with Christophers' solid command of Handelian drama. The repertoire may not be the most common collection of arias (only one is very familiar), but the selection is no less engaging for that; the idea of this recital was to "depict not only the close links between opera and oratorio in Handel's works but also equate the position of hero and heroine." Interesting programming concept aside, what you hear is top-notch Handel singing in some very characterful and artistically challenging pieces.>
From Connolly's first notes, "Sta nell' Ircana" from Alcina, we have no doubt about this voice's considerable dramatic capabilities, and we can't help but be impressed with both her range (free of discernible register breaks) and ease of delivery from top to bottom. By the aria's end she's confirmed the power of her lowest register notes and ability to fully embody and project her character. I'm not wild about her "ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" articulation in one of the aria's repeated figures, but since she doesn't exhibit this annoying mannerism anywhere else, I assume it's an intended "effect" (imitating the orchestral figures, perhaps?) and only mention it because it's so striking and uncharacteristic of her singing in general.
Connolly is just as convincing and her voice is as lovely in the slower arias, including "Mi lusingha il dolce affetto" from Alcina (all seven minutes of it!). Her breath control is amazing and she completely enthralls with her attractive, sensible ornaments. And she's lucky to have such a partner in Christophers and his attentive orchestra: listen as he takes Connolly's lead from the intro to Ariodante's tender "Scherza infida" and hands her a perfectly set atmosphere of sorrow and tragic determination. This is the highlight of the CD, Connolly's subtle vocal shading, expressive phrasing, and vibrant tone varying from gently floating to more emphatically projected--the definition of captivating.
Other listeners may cite the following "Dopo notte", a brisk, high-energy aria from the same opera, as the most impressive of Connolly's performances, and it would be hard to argue in light of the singer's command of the reams of rapid runs and wildly leaping lines while maintaining the flow and emotional intensity of this fiendishly difficult seven minutes of music. And then there's the beloved and oft-performed "Verdi prati", which Connolly renders as sensitively and with as sumptuous a tone and smoothly-spun legato as we could hope for. The final "Where shall I fly?" from Hercules is a magnificent display of virtuoso vocalism, although I still prefer Stephanie Blythe's more fluid, richer-voiced rendition--purely a matter of personal taste. And again, much credit must go to Christophers' smart orchestral leadership and to the crisply pointed accents, finely honed rhythms, and warm sound of the Symphony of Harmony and Invention, recorded to the highest modern standard."
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com [10/11/2004]