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GRAMOPHONE (04/2017)
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Sony 88985302932

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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

In her absolute prime at 35, the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has been winning plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic as Violetta, Desdemona, Norma (at Covent Garden) and Mimì. Her rich lyric soprano, reminiscent of the young Angela Gheorghiu in its balance of brightness and sensuous depth, is a beautiful instrument and she combines thoughtful musicianship with bags of dramatic temperament. On its own terms this is a compelling if rather haphazardly ordered Handel recital, though it’s emphatically not for those who set a premium on what we generally accept as Baroque style.

In the opening two tracks – Cleopatra’s keening prayer ‘Se pietà’ and the lovelorn Alcina’s despairing ‘Ah, mio cor’ – you mig ht be forgiven for thinking you’d strayed into Violetta’s ‘Addio del passato’. The fee ling is intense. But Yoncheva’s distinctive if controlled vibrato – rather at odds with the lean, crisp playing of Academia Montis Regalis – might take some getting used to in this music. More contentious is her constant ebbing and swelling, and her almost invariable habit of approaching climactic (sometimes not only climactic) notes from below – Bellinian morbidezza transplanted into an alien aesthetic.

If the disc had continued on these lines I’d have found the upshot nearintolerable. In retrospect, these two great tragic arias can be seen as extreme cases. While clean attack is never Yoncheva’s priority, she displays ample agility, and a sense of whooping joy, in Morgana’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ – a Handelian show-stopper – and lives each phase of Agrippina’s baleful scena ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormenti’, though I could have done with more ruthless glee in the waltzing ‘Ogni vento’, where Agrippina plots to make her psychopath son Nero emperor. Yoncheva is surprisingly, and effectively, restrained in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, ornamenting the repeats tastefully, and brings a flirtatious lightness of touch to Cleopatra’s entrance aria ‘Non disperar’, bafflingly placed several tracks after ‘Se pietà’.

In two of Handel’s most poignant duets Yoncheva rather outguns mezzo Karine Deshayes, who sings well enough but finds the tessitura of the Theodora duet, especially, uncomfortably low. Here, as in ‘Se pietà’, the mournful counterpoints of the single bassoon (Handel prescribes two) are too faintly balanced. Paid-up fans of the glamorous-voiced soprano, not so much fast-rising, as the blurb has it, but fully risen, will ignore any provisos. Others should enjoy this disc as long as they are happy to hear Handel’s slower arias refracted through a bel canto prism.

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