The liner with this set proclaims `It goes without saying that our audiophile label refrains from any sort of sound-modifying manipulation with reverberation, sound-filters, or limiters', although, as you can see, they say it anyway. Sadly, I myself have to say that it is precisely this organic and additive-free sound that prevents me from being more enthusiastic about the production. Right from the overture I found the 1999 sound-quality to be rather dull and `dead'. For a moment, during the opening chorus, I began to hope that this might not be too much of a problem, but when the countertenor Sytse Buwalda set off on the first solo number I started to appreciate how matters were going to develop. The first chorus has an almost Bachian darkness about it, and the recorded sound was by no means inappropriate. The trouble is mainly in the way it treats the soloists. In brief, it reduces the impact of what I like about them and amplifies the effects that I don't like. More's the pity, because there is a great deal about this performance of this little-recorded work that is really very good indeed.
To start with the best things about this set, the choral and instrumental work is probably first-class. I say `probably' because even this is slightly dulled by the recording, but not enough to disguise the clear and distinct English of the chorus and the brilliant precision of their rapid passage-work in the closing number of act I, nor some very nifty and agile orchestral playing. In general the sense of style is apt and proportionate, and the soloists, whatever my reservations, are not only technically accomplished but rise very expressively to the beauty of the arias. Just now and again I would have liked a bit more liveliness to the tempo in the solo numbers, and of course the recording may have set me thinking this way, but the real problem I have is with the soloists' tone and enunciation. The first soloist we hear is Buwalda, and he gives me the most difficulty by far. His English elocution comes over as if he had a Kartoffel in his mouth, and everything I would not have liked about his voice anyway is made more unattractive by the engineering. He is the sort of countertenor who sounds as if his underpants are too tight, and I was visited by reminiscences of Chaucer's Pardoner. Elisabeth von Magnus as Susanna gets her tongue round English rather better, but I suspect better than she is allowed to sound. Tom Sol's English is more or less perfect, my only difficulty specific to him being his intrusive h's in coloratura music - `flay-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay-m' for `flame' and such like. John Elwes as the First Elder does very well (subject to my general strictures about the sound), but Ruth Holton does not seem to be very well served at all. In the touching little cameo role as the widowed servant all is well enough with her and her sweet little song `Ask if yon damask rose', but either her voice is not right for the prophet Daniel, or the recording lets her down, or both. Surely Daniel's denunciations of the lying Elders need a ringing declamatory tone, rather than the distant impression of a female vicar leading the responses at Evensong that we have here.
Everything that is important in the oratorio Susanna is by Handel, but it is not all by Handel nevertheless. The author of the libretto is unknown, but its diction is flat-footed and sometimes ridiculous, and of course the central action relates to the attempted assault on Susanna, and their subsequent allegations of adultery on her part to save their own skins at the expense of hers, by the lecherous and treacherous Elders. Strauss would have had one way of setting such a topic to music, but not only were conventions different in Handel's time, Handel did not have a first-class librettist of the calibre of Hoffmansthal or anywhere near it. It's hard to know how the librettist meant the utterances of the Elders to be understood. It may be that he intended them to be grotesque and ridiculous, but for me the author of `Say, will the vulture leave his prey/And warble thro' the grove', or of `Beneath the cypress' gloomy shade...I saw the lovely shepherd laid' is capable of taking more or less anything seriously. The performers have a delicate task in interpreting Handel's setting of such an episode, and all credit to them - I believe they get it about right. I differ slightly from the author of the excellent liner note in that I find no `humour' in Handel's approach - he surely had far too much taste to find anything funny in it. However to find the Elders ridiculous is not the same thing, and I believe the singers and the conductor alike get just the right tone of absurdity, along with the fear, defiance and revulsion, that goes into the startlingly tense and dramatic trio that Susanna sings with her assailants. Above all they remember, as Handel did, that whatever the dramatic considerations the first and foremost thing is to remain musical.
The liner note is exemplary. The German essay is thoughtful and helpful, and its English translation is genuine English and not translationese. The libretto is given in full, again with German equivalent, and there are notes on all the performers as well as the mission-statement of the recording strategy. I hardly need reiterate that this is not my idea of a perfect Susanna, but it has a lot going for it nevertheless. As matters stand currently, it looks as if the choice is between this Susanna and no Susanna, so it has been an easy choice for me.