Handel: Theodora

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: Theodora
PERFORMER: Johanette Zomer (soprano), Sytse Buwalda (countertenor), Helena Rasker (mezzo-soprano), Knut Schoch, Marco Schweizer (tenor), Tom Sol (bass); Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 332 1019-2
Peter Neumann, his Cologne Chamber Choir and Collegium Cartusianum impressed me a short while ago with their recording of Bach’s 1725 version of the St John Passion. Now they have turned their attention to Handel’s superb, penultimate English oratorio Theodora. Librettist Thomas Morell’s story of the martyrdom of the Christian Theodora is not one which was likely to make wide appeal among the public of Handel’s day. But the work was a favourite of the composer himself, so the indifferent reception of its first performances in 1750 must have been a personal disappointment.

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There is no shortage of rival recordings of Theodora at the moment, with those by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec), Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi), Paul McCreesh (DG Archiv) and a savagely cut version – though with one or two outstandingly affecting solo contributions – by Johannes Somary (Vanguard) currently available. Another, by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, is promised but, meanwhile, here is the latest set to enter the arena. Neumann injects an effective sense of drama and expressive immediacy with lively tempi, crisp articulation and well-judged pacing; and his period-instrument band is responsive and bright-toned. The chorus, with evenly balanced voices, is variable and not recorded in this concert performance with sufficient clarity. Disappointment also registers in some of the solo contributions. Knut Schoch makes a lame showing as the Roman officer Septimius, while evident difficulties by some other soloists in enunciating the English text too often dilute its inflective urgency. Johanette Zomer (Theodora) has an appealing voice and brings nobility to her role, but Helena Rasker (Irene) is too fragile in her aria ‘As with rosy steps the morn’. Sytse Buwalda contributes a warm-toned Didymus but, notwithstanding some effective moments here, McCreesh’s recording comfortably remains my benchmark. Nicholas Anderson