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CD Review

George Frideric Handel

Virgin 45497

Oratorio Arias

  • Arias from Belshazzar, Semele, Theodora, Saul, Jephtha, and Messiah
David Daniels, countertenor
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson
Virgin Classics 45497 DDD 67:23
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David Daniels's first Handel recital (Virgin Veritas 45326) was devoted to operatic arias. Many of those arias were originally written for castrato – which Daniels is not. In contrast, many of the arias presented here were written for an "intact" countertenor – which Daniels is. Therefore, one might argue that Daniels is more at home here than he was on the earlier CD, a statement which I think is supported by the performances themselves. He sounds perfectly comfortable with the range of these arias, and, as they are less ornamented and require less agility than the operatic arias, Daniels can spend more time concentrating on tone, dynamics, and other niceties, and he does so to good effect. There's a lot of awfully good singing on this CD. The apex comes with the last selection, "He was despised" from Messiah. One of Handel's longest arias, it often bogs down on disc and in performance. (I recently heard a recording that topped out at over 16 minutes!) Even though Daniels and Nelson take 10:47 over it, it seems not a second too long, given Daniels's flawless intonation and dramatic sense, and Nelson's pin-point accurate conducting.

Daniels is a phenomenon: he's a man who sounds like a female contralto – a very strong female contralto! Whenever I hear him, I think of Maureen Forrester. Arguably, this is the best of both worlds. He's very skilled in Baroque performance styles, showing that he has the intelligence necessary to complement his formidable voice. I see that he has recorded music by Vaughan Williams and Poulenc too, and I can't help but wonder what that sounds like – and what voice-part he takes in those songs! One weakness of this recital, however, is that there's not a lot of dramatic differentiation from aria to aria. Yes, this is oratorio, but with the exception of "He was despised," these arias are sung by humans, not by abstractions.

Nelson's conducting shows more life than Roger Norrington's (he was Daniels's partner on the operatic arias CD), and the small orchestra plays with confidence. (Veteran Martin Isepp is the harpsichordist and organist here.) The recording was made in Notre-Dame du Liban in Paris, always a dependable venue.

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle

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