HANDEL / BACH Arias
Virgin Classics 5 45475 2
Recorded in 2000.
Released in 2001.
- JS Bach: (arias from passions and the Mass in B minor)
- Handel: Arias from:
Stephanie Blythe (contralto)
- Serse (Xerxes)
- Frondi tenere
- Ombra mai fù
- Where shall I fly?
- Awake, Saturnia
- Iris, hence away
- Giulio Cesare in Egitto
- Al lampo dell'armi
- Dall'ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pietà
- Priva son d'ogni conforto
- Madre!... Son nata a lagrimar*
[*David Daniels, countertenor)]
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris (on modern instruments)
Conductor: John Nelson
This is the first recording by the American contralto Stephanie Blythe (although most of the repertoire included here reveals her to be closer to a mezzo-soprano). Blythe is perfectly at ease on stage in Verdi, Wagner or Britten, has a fine reputation in Brahms, but has also played Cornelia in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto.
As is often the case nowadays, the first CD showcasing a new artist is a recital. Blythe possesses a strong powerful voice with rich low notes and clear high notes. However, her attacks are sometimes hard, which can result in having the sound too much back in the throat. This can cause a lack of suppleness, some problems with mixing the registers, a loss of accuracy in the fast runs - particularly in the mid to low range of her voice - and with the legato. Her vocal personality does not really seem to fit perfectly a piece like ‘Ombra mai fu’. It is quite different with ‘Al lampo dell’armi’, and the English arias. Blythe's interpretation of ‘Iris, hence away’ is the highlight of the recording, and she displays a total involvement in the character. The main drawback with this recital is finally one of interpretation. Whilst there is dramatic effort, it is too monotonous without sufficient contrast between different characters. This is particularly true for the Handel arias, but perhaps matters less in Bach.
The most satisfying moments on this recording are both from Giulio Cesare: the aria ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’ and the duet ‘Son nata a lagrimar/Son nato a sospirar’ sung with the countertenor David Daniels. The duet highlights the difference between the dramatic intensity of David Daniels, even in such a high part, and the sort of detachment we can feel in S. Blythe’s singing - although the contrast between them works very well. L’Ensemble Orchestral de Paris provides an efficient accompaniment and the presence of Jérôme Hantai (viola da gamba) and Emmanuelle Haïm (harpsichord) is welcome.
In short, the Handel arias are more impressive than moving. The Bach arias, which do not belong to the same theatricality and the same vocalità, are much more satisfying in both ways. This review could seem to be harsh, but such a recital is certainly not the wisest choice for the debut of a young singer not totally at ease with the 18th century bel canto techniques despite her vocal talent and ability on stage. Let us hope Blythe will soon record some Brahms…
© Philippe Gelinaud - October 2001
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