Haydn: Arianna a Naxos

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LABELS: Brilliant Classics
WORKS: Arianna a Naxos
PERFORMER: Emma Kirkby (soprano), Marcia Hadjimarkos (fortepiano)

Picture the scene. The year 1798, and Nelson has routed the French at Aboukir. A cantata is needed to celebrate his victory, and Haydn, now well in with London’s high society, duly obliges. And he accompanies Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton at the piano, to ‘grand effect’.
Another very English Emma turns to a section of that cantata now; though her declamation of The Battle of the Nile is possibly more circumspect than that of its first diva. Marcia Hadjimarkos creates a flurry of fanfares on her replica Viennese fortepiano – but this comes over as no more than an historical curiosity.
Arianna a Naxos, too, sounds a little tame. You might prefer this tragic scena to be sung, as it often is, in the more sombre timbres of a mezzo-soprano. Emma Kirkby’s voice always does tend to sound as though it’s smiling, even when it isn’t. 
She and Hadjimarkos come into their own, though, in the garland of English canzonettas which wind their way round the two cantatas. Kirkby has the measure of the salon sentiment and pathos of Haydn’s settings of Anne Hunter, wife of his physician; and her bright-eyed, immaculately preserved and warmly communicative voice – equally warmly and closely recorded – makes them entirely engaging. Hilary Finch