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Handel, G.F.: Hercules / Bach, J.S.: Kommt, Ihr Angefochtnen

Handel, G.F.: Hercules / Bach, J.S.: Kommt, Ihr Angefochtnen

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"When the Wigmore Hall Live label released an archival recording of a 1998 recital by the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson last year, it raised the hope of more such posthumous finds. And just as that hope had begun to fade, here comes another treasure, this one unearthed from the archives of Emmanuel Music in Boston.

As it happens, this release serves as tribute not only to Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006, but also to her frequent close collaborator Craig Smith, the founder of Emmanuel Music, who died in November. And the material is choice: spacious arias from two Bach cantatas and extended excerpts from Handel’s oratorio “Hercules.”

The disc begins with a 1992 recording of the aria “Kommt ihr angefochtnen Sünder” from Bach’s Cantata No. 30: Something of a tease as the opening instrumental passage heightens the anticipation of Hunt Lieberson’s entrance, more than two minutes into the disc. But that glorious Voice, when it appears, meets every expectation.

The “Hercules” excerpts, from 1999, trace the travails of the hero’s wife, Dejanira, culminating in a harrowing mad scene.... Although Hunt Lieberson’s compelling stage presence added mightily to any performance, the voice alone amply conveys her characteristic intensity here....

Dare we hope for more?"

– James R. Oestreich, New York Times [8/10/2008]

The early death of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson deprived the world of an exceptional artist and one, moreover, who left all too few commercial recordings. However, some archive recordings are now beginning to emerge and this new release, featuring previously unissued live recordings is one such. The CD also forms a tribute to one of her mentors, Craig Smith, Music Director at Emmanuel Church, Boston from 1970 until his death in November 2007 at the age of sixty.

Smith founded Emmanuel Music, which, besides fulfilling a liturgical function at the church, evolved also into a concert ensemble of no little distinction. Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was to inaugurate the practice whereby each Sunday between October and April, the main Sunday morning church service includes a cantata by Bach appropriate to the day. That tradition continues to this day and later this year the thirty-ninth consecutive season of liturgical cantatas will commence.

It was through Emmanuel Music that the then Lorraine Hunt took some of the first steps on her solo singing career and she maintained the connection, I believe, for the rest of her life, including appearances in the Sunday cantata series. This disc, therefore, takes us back to her singing roots.

The disc begins and ends with arias taken, I presume, from complete Sunday service performances of Bach cantatas. The aria "Kommt ihr angefochtnen Sünder" comes from the cantata Freue dich, erlöste schar, written for the feast of St. John the Baptist. Alfred Dürr writes thus of the cantata: "The underlying mood is joyful, relaxed and unproblematical, not only in the opening chorus but in the four arias, where a dance-like style is often clearly evident." Unfortunately, to judge by this aria at least, Craig Smith seems to have a different conception. Presumably with the agreement of his soloist, he sets and extremely slow tempo and the aria lasts 8:46.

This sent me scurrying to my shelves for comparisons. John Eliot Gardiner, in his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage performance takes a mere 5:27 but he is surely too fleet – at his pace the aria sounds like a gambol through the Elysian meadows. So that might seem to suggest that Smith is "simply" old fashioned in his conception. But turn to Fritz Werner’s 1971 performance and you find a tempo that seems to me to be just right – he takes 6:03. Beside Werner I’m afraid Smith sounds laboured. What saves the performance is the sheer beauty and inwardness of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s singing. On its own terms the performance is quite lovely and no admirer of the singer will be disappointed but I just think the basic conception is wrong.

Things are much more satisfactory in the other Bach aria, which is placed at the opposite end of the programme. This aria is from the cantata Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, which is for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. Again, Miss Hunt Lieberson’s singing is beautiful and communicative and this time the pace is much more sensible, I think. The conductor here is the composer, John Harbison, who has also had a long association with Emmanuel Music and who, in fact, is currently the Acting Artistic Director. He adopts a slow pace, but this aria can take it. Again comparisons were instructive. Eliot Gardiner’s tempo is almost identical and he takes exactly as long as does Harbison. Werner didn’t record this cantata but another celebrated Bach traditionalist, Karl Richter, did. In his 1976/7 recording he takes 9:34 but his soloist, Julia Hamari, sounds cool besides either of her rivals and she and Richter, whose direction is smooth and relaxed, convey no real sense of trepidation. Nathalie Stutzmann, for Eliot Gardiner, is perhaps a touch more inward than Hunt Lieberson but she’s equally involving and it’s only by the merest whisker that I come down in favour of this present, excellent performance.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to excerpts from Handel’s oratorio, Hercules and these excerpts contain all the music for Dejanira, the wife of the eponymous hero. I presume, though it’s not clear from the documentation, that these extracts are taken from a live account of the complete work.

The role of Dejanira is an exceptionally demanding one, both vocally and emotionally. She is, in Craig Smith’s words, a "monumental character." I can well imagine that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a pretty formidable presence in the performance of the oratorio for these extracts show us a vivid character portrayal.

In her first aria, "The world when day’s career is run," she is fully the grief-stricken wife, yet she still retains dignity. Much of Dejanira’s music is in moderate or slow tempo but when swifter music arrives, in "Begone, my fears, fly, hence, away," Miss Hunt Lieberson excels in the passagework.

As her jealousy of the captive princess, Iole, begins to take hold and her certainty that Hercules has been unfaithful increases there’s great sadness in the aria ‘When beauty sorrow’s liv’ry wears’ and that is splendidly conveyed here. Particularly outstanding is the account of "Cease, ruler of the day, to rise," where the singing is particularly expressive. Writing of this disc elsewhere, but of another aria in the programme, the critic Michael Kennedy spoke of Miss Hunt Lieberson’s "power to humanise every note and bring the music to new life." How I agree and I’d say that this comment applies even more strongly to this deep aria.

The final excerpt is the Mad Scene. Here Miss Hunt Lieberson is intensely dramatic without ever going overboard. This is extremely demanding music and she performs it vividly and, once again, when the divisions arise she displays fine vocal agility. Hers is a tremendous performance of this recitative and aria and, unsurprisingly, it sparks an ovation from the audience who, otherwise, are commendably silent throughout.

These extracts contain some superb Handel singing. Frequently I was reminded of Dame Janet Baker’s assumption of Handelian roles and I can pay no higher compliment than that.

Despite my reservation over the one Bach item – a reservation that does not concern the singing per se – this is a superb disc that all admirers of this much-missed singer will want to have. And if you’ve not heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson before, buy this disc and discover for yourself what all the fuss is about.

– John Quinn, MusicWeb International
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Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 01, 2008

  • UPC: 822252213027

  • Catalog Number: AV2130

  • Label: AVIE Records

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Conductor: Craig Smith, John Harbison

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Emmanuel Music Orchestra

  • Performer: Jayne West, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson