WORKS: Between Heaven and Earth: Arias from La Resurrezione, Theodora, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day etc
PERFORMER: Sandrine Piau (soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor); Accademia Bizantina/ Stefano Montanari
CATALOGUE NO: OP 30484
These two discs of Handel soprano arias feature different material – Sandrine Piau’s from the oratorios, Italian and (mostly) English, across a large time-span, Johannette Zomer a quarter-century of Italian opera – but otherwise have much in common. Both sport fancy subtitles – Between Heaven and Earth, Love and Madness – indicating the placing of numbers not chronologically but according to theme.
Each is clearly intended as an artist’s personal statement-of-belief about the special power of Handel’s vocal compositions. (Piau’s booklet carries a short explicatory essay of her own which I found more or less incomprehensible.)
The results on both albums, underpinned by lively, style-conscious period-instrument playing, Italian and Dutch respectively – extreme tempo choices and a free (at times excessively so) approach to vocal ornamentation – are enjoyable, though Handelians who generally prefer the understated, typically ‘English’ mode of reading his works might be advised to steer clear of both.
Piau’s disc starts much less well than it goes on, with the splashily ornate ‘Diserratevi, o porte d’Averno’ (from La resurrezione), a piece previously featured – and no less wildly over-energised in delivery – on Cecilia Bartoli’s Opera proibita album. But singing in English, which this French soprano does with considerable if not perfect skill, seems to release a vein of poignant colouration in her beautifully clean, wide-ranging voice.
The choices from L’Allegro – the ravishing ‘Sweet Bird’ and, with the excellent Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu, the ‘As steals the morn’ duet – demonstrate this specially well, but the singer’s emotional commitment to her programme leaves a strong and at times powerfully positive impression.
The singing of the Dutch soprano, a distinguished performer of the Baroque and 18th century, is no less marked by technical skill: her cool tones and fine control accommodate with untroubled ease the various expressions of pathos, fury, celebration and seduction collected here.
But in contrast to Piau, Zomer’s self-consciously ‘period’ style of phrasing and a monochromatic one-style-fits-all utterance of words betray a marked absence of emotional involvement. Whether it’s Handel’s Berenice, Medea, Melissa or Ariodante, one character comes across largely indistinguishable from another. Max Loppert