The period-performance fraternity--the artists, their presenters, whether in the concert hall or on recordings, and their audiences--is growing up. Merely playing on old instruments, quickly, without vibrato and at lowered pitch, is no longer taken as a guarantee of authenticity--or of sales. The recordings are fewer and better, an indication that the fad phase is drawing to a close and being replaced by a serious search for quality.
Christopher Hogwood returns to the quest (permanently, one hopes) after some ill-advised excursions into the world of modern symphony orchestra conducting, directing his Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord in Handel's "Athalia" (Oiseau-Lyre 417 126, LP or CD, two discs).
"Athalia," the composer's third English oratorio and a mine of grand tunes and trenchant characterization, is based on a tragedy by Racine, which in turn draws its inspiration from the Old Testament.
The musical and dramatic aspects of this mighty work are given their due here by Hogwood's vital leadership and by the smooth vocalism and textual pointing of Emma Kirkby, James Bowman, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Aled Jones, the last-named the possessor of a flexible, focused and blessedly unhooty boy-soprano voice allied to sound dramatic instincts. His duet with Kirkby, "My spirits fail," is one of the set's--and the work's--high points. And no praise can be too high for the Choir of New College, Oxford, which executes its crucial part with superb clarity and thrust.
Still, the set cannot be considered a total success. The presence so far unaccounted for is that of the title character, Athalia, the haunted, vengeful Queen of Judah--a Jewish Klytemnestra, as Handel scholar Winton Dean described her--one of Handel's dramatic and musical masterstrokes, sung here by no less commanding a figure than Joan Sutherland.
The celebrated vocal instrument of old makes its presence felt in the great, florid aria "My vengeance awakes me" and in the ever-awesome Sutherland trill. But in the lower soprano reaches and at low volume-- where much of the role is situated--the voice is afflicted by an incessant wobble and, frequently, sagging pitch.
No such problem besets the London Opera Stage production of "Alcina" (Angel 3984, LP only, four discs), quite likely the most solidly cast and idiomatically rendered Handel opera on recordings to date.
This is, in fact, the production on which the recent staging by Los Angeles Music Center Opera was based, and it features the principals who made the local presentation such a memorable event: Arleen Auger in the title role, Della Jones as Ruggero, Eiddwen Harrhy as Morgana, conductor Richard Hickox--here leading the City of London Sinfonia--and an unsung hero of the Los Angeles version, Ian Watson, the imaginative performer of the harpsichord continuo.
Another excellent keyboard player and Handel specialist, Ton Koopman, brings his superior musicianship to bear this time on the music of Joseph Haydn--the most familiar of that composer's "Sturm und Drang" symphonies: Nos. 44 ("Mourning"), 45 ("Farewell") and 49 ("La Passione"). Leading from the harpsichord, Koopman guides his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with a neat balancing of aggressiveness and expressivity (Erato 88173, CD).
Haydn's youthful "St. Cecilia" Mass, with its breathtaking tenor-chorus setting of "Christe eleison," can be found in a gently eloquent performance by the Choir of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford and the Academy of Ancient Music under Simon Preston's direction. The vocal quartet features the limpid soprano of Judith Nelson and the sweet tenor of Martin Hill (Oiseau-Lyre 417 125, CD).
St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, is further celebrated in Purcell's 1692 ode, "Hail! Bright Cecilia," with Andrew Parrott leading the Taverner Players and Chorus as well as a large solo vocal contingent (Angel 47490, CD).
This authentic-with-a-vengeance recorded edition, replete with droning strings and an abundance of vibrato-less sopranos and frail tenors and countertenors, is likely to strike many listeners as being on the fey side. Still, Parrott's full-blooded leadership, his excellent wind soloists and the lofty inspiration of Purcell's score are powerfully offsetting factors.