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Intensely Pleasurable Listening - Gramophone Award April 23 2006
By Leslie Richford - Published on
Format: Audio CD
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Susanna. Oratorio. First performed 1749. Complete version including all the music that Handel later deleted. Performed by Lorraine Hunt and Jill Feldman, soprano, Drew Minter, countertenor, Jeffrey Thomas, tenor, David Thomas and William Parker, bass; the U.C. Berkely Chamber Choir; the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco, conducted by Nicholas McGegan.
Recorded live in September, 1989, at the Hertz Hall at the University of California.
Harmonia Mundi 907030.32 (boxed set of 3 CDs). Total time: 2 h 58'22".

What a pity that Harmonia Mundi has deleted this first full recording of Handel's late oratorio "Susanna" from its catalogue. If, like me, you can manage to get hold of a second-hand copy, then do so by all means, for this Gramophone Award-winning set of discs is good for many hours of intensely pleasurable listening and provides insights into Handel's later style that are denied those who limit themselves to "Messiah" and "Israel in Egypt" or to his more dynamic, perhaps even blustery early works and operas. "Susanna", the story taken from a piece of Jewish writing from the 2nd century B. C. (and usually included in the "Apocrypha"), is a comparatively small-scale work with a lot of intimate writing: Lorraine Hunt, soprano, as Susanna, and Drew Minter, countertenor, as her husband Joacim, have wreaths of delightful airs in which they praise either each other or the delights of love and virtue. Both have comparatively small voices, not perhaps served particularly well by the dry and somewhat distant acoustic of this live recording, but while listening via headphones I came to the conclusion that this was, by far, the best McGegan recording I had heard to date and that the two singers mentioned were, stylistically, among the best Handel singers I have ever come across. Lorraine Hunt is wonderfully expressive, her voice seeming ideally to suit the pensive and intimate mood of this music, while Drew Minter impresses again and again with his ornamentation. The two villains of the piece, two Jewish elders who first attempt to rape Susanna and then, on being rebuffed, accuse her of adultery and have her sentenced to death, are sung by Jeffrey Thomas and David Thomas, two contrasting voices who here seem to capture perfectly the combination of perfidious hypocrisy and malevolent lust that Handel's libretto has woven into their texts. Although I am not a great fan of David Thomas's rather throaty bass, I must say that I found him here in magnificent form, ideally complementing Jeffrey Thomas, who here sounds, to my ears, a lot more convincing than on the McGegan recording of "La Resurrezione". The smaller roles are song by William Parker, bass, who acquits himself well, and by the boyish-sounding Jill Feldman, soprano, who had already captured my admiring attention on her earlier recordings with William Christie's Les Arts Florissants: here, again, I found her small but extremely pure voice to be absolutely delectable. - The relatively small contribution made by the choir is very well captured, although I found myself thinking that there was not really a comparison between the large Berkeley Chamber Choir (around 48 singers) and, for example, John Eliot Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir on recordings such as "Solomon" for Philips. The smallish Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra produces beautiful music despite the lack of volume in the strings, and the harpsichord continuo (McGegan himself with Philip Brett and a continuo team) is always lively and keeps one on one's listening toes. Handel was remarkably reticent in this oratorio, and he only introduces trumpets very briefly towards the end of the third part, where they are played skilfully and accurately, something that is not always the case with natural trumpets.
All in all, a marvelous listening experience. The recordings were made live at two performances, but I only detected the slightest amount of stage or audience noise, and there is no applause at the end.