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Fanfare Magazine: 28:1 (09/2004)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020182659


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Reviewer: Bernard Jacobson


The labels may have changed—last time around, it was cpo versus Vox—but, like his recording of Imeneo, which I reviewed with some enthusiasm in 27:6, Andreas Spering's new Siroe on Harmonia Mundi comes into direct competition with Rudolph Palmer's earlier version, released in 1991 by Newport Classic. In the present case, honors between the two recordings are more even, so that I fear this is going to be another of those infuriating reviews that refuse to come down firmly on one side or the other.

A word first on the work itself. Premiered in 1728, Siroe, King of Persia is a setting of the second opera libretto written by Metastasio, in a revised version by Nicola Haym, who in the previous few years had provided Handel with adapted texts for the three great operas Giulio Cesare,, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. Given such credentials, it is no surprise that the Siroe libretto is a taut and dramatically effective piece of work. The simplest way to characterize the story is to say that it is akin to King Lear: King Cosroe, contemplating abdication, wants to choose between his two sons in naming his successor. The bad son, Medarse (a countertenor, naturally), happily and deceitfully swears a fulsome oath of obedience, while his elder brother Siroe, the Cordelia figure in the story, refuses as a matter of principle. Unlike Lear, this particular drama, after various dire emergencies, reaches a joyful conclusion, with noble forgiveness extended all around and Siroe rightfully installed on the throne.

In arriving at their performing texts, conductors Spenng and Palmer take quite different tacks. With unusual and indeed perhaps excessive honesty, Harmonia Mundi bills its Siroe as an “abridged version.“ This had me worried, but the abridgment turns out to affect only the long secco recitatives. These are very substantially reduced in length, but none of the set numbers are omitted or cut. Palmer, by contrast, excises relatively little from the recitatives, but omits two arias (Laodice's “Or mi perdo ogni speranza“ at the end of act I, and Siroe's “Se l'amor tuo mi rendi“ in act III), and also omits the brief repeat in the da capo of Emira's “Sgombra dell'anima.“

Since the recitatives in this work are exceptionally fine and dramatically pertinent, the Newport performance as a whole certainly gains from Palmer's fuller treatment, especially in view of John Ostendorf's compellingly personal delivery. The loss, on the other hand, of “Se l'amor“ (which could easily have been accommodated within the set's three-disc format) is to be regretted. This is a superb aria, fully representative of Siroe's righteous—not to say self-righteous—character, and laid out in arresting three-measure phrases that bring a welcome rhythmic freshness to the score. It is, moreover, quite superbly sung in the Harmonia Mundi set by the Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg, who was the star of Spering's imeneo cast, and who stands out even more emphatically in the no less excellent vocal line-up he has brought together for Siroe. This is a voice of rare beauty and warmth, deployed with absolute clarity and firmness of line, and a welcome accession to the increasing ranks of accomplished mezzos that seem to be cropping up these days all over the place.

Of the other soloists in the new set, only the Emira, Johanna Stojkovic, is a holdover from Imeneo. She again sings well, but this time her rival in Palmer's performance, Julianne Baird, seems to me clearly superior. In addition to all of Baird's familiar charm and grace, her performance benefits from Palmer's more relaxed conducting, particularly in “Sgombra dell'anima.“ Here, Spering's taste for rapid tempos reaches a point where his strings inevitably sound ragged and the effect of his singer's and players' evident strain is frankly ugly; Baird and Palmer lose nothing in urgency and gain much in musicality and poise. Spering's Laodice, Medarse, and Cosroe are all excellent, and the smaller role of Arasse is well taken. But as Laodice and Medarse, Palmer's Andrea Matthews and Steven Rickards are as good, perhaps even better, and though Sebastian Noack's Cosroe may be more fluently and beautifully sung than John Ostendorf's, it is Ostendorf that brings more character and intensity to this royal figure: he sounds genuinely conflicted, where Noack is altogether too youthful and untroubled in tone.

Fast tempos aside, I find Spering's treatment of the embellishment question also as puzzling as it was in Imeneo. The da capo sections are fully ornamented—sometimes, indeed, to excess in the case of one or two cadential flourishes—but Spering is obviously unconvinced by such testimony as that of Handel's contemporary Pier Francesco Tosi, who declared in his Observations on the Florid Song that embellishment should begin in the middle section of an aria, and proceed to further levels of artistry and intricacy in the da capo. Under Spering, the opening sections often sound plain to the point of unstylishness, as does his eschewing of overdotting in the introductory section of the overture.

In all of these respects, Palmer's performance seems to me more convincing. Overall, since Palmer's orchestra plays with considerable polish for him, and the Newport recording is no less well managed than the Harmonia Mundi, I am inclined to think that the earlier version is the one I shall listen to more often in the future. Still, when I do so, well as Palmer's D'Anna Fortunato sings the title role, I shall certainly miss Ann Hallenberg. Her wonderful singing is a very strong factor in the new set's favor, and may serve as consolation for collectors unable to locate a copy of the rather elusive Newport Classic.

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