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Endless Pleasure, Handel and
Ruth Ann Swenson (s); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Charles Mackerras. EMI CDC 7243 5 56672 2 9 (67:57)
Handel: Semele: Endless pleasure; Myself I shall adore; O sleep, why dost thou leave me? Giulio Cesare: V'adoro, pupille; Se pietà di me non senti; Da tempeste il legno infranto. MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele...Traurigkeit; Martern aller Arten. Misera, dove son!...Ah! non son io che parlò, K. 369. Lucio Silla: In un istante...Parto, m'affretto.
Positively Golden (EMI CDC 0777 7 54827 2 0), Ruth Ann Swenson's debut program of Donizetti and Bellini arias, was a good album; this one is even better. The singer's tendency to apply pressure to the top notes is much less in evidence, so the voice mostly pours out in smooth, even lines—the singing is more bel canto here than on the bel canto program!
The soprano's alertness to the sense of the text makes the Semele arias are particularly fetching. Endless pleasure, taken at a bouncy clip, and Myself I shall adore are sprightly and alert. I also liked her pensive take on O sleep, why dost thou leave me?, though I'd have liked a warmer, more vibrant tone from the exposed continuo 'cello. (The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a "period" band, so the string playing is straight-toned, in the fashionable Early Musicke style.)
The are arias, in Italian, find Swenson less specifically responsive. But she conveys the overall moods nicely, and her singing is so innately musical as to leave the impression of hearing the music pure and unmediated. The sober, loving mood of V'adoro, pupille—its reprise ornamented tastefully, if squarely—expands into tragic breadth for Se pietà di me non senti. Conversely, Swenson dispatches the fioriture of Da tempeste fluently and with plenty of dash, at a driving tempo that never turns driven.
The selections introduce a third language, German, which Swenson sings nicely in a liquid, Italianate way. She's clearly intelligible in the recitative preceding Traurigkeit, then swallows most of the consonants in the aria itself. A flowing tempo avoids the longueurs that this number frequently occasions, and Swenson sings the piece gorgeously, though she has to stretch the dotted motif each time it appears. The vocal challenges of Martern aller Arten—performed, incidentally, in the padded-sounding uncut version—pose no problems for Swenson, who rips off the coloraturas fluently while maintaining an appropriate proclamatory demeanor. But everyone concerned languishes needlessly over the brief second theme: this woman, this character, is too direct for such indulgence.
The remaining Mozart numbers, a concert aria and an early opera aria, are more abstract settings. Swenson intones the recitative of K. 369 with feeling. In the slow portion of the aria, she's content to let the composer do his job—not a bad strategy, if your composer is Mozart!—allowing the musical shapes to carry the expressive burden without active interference; she then brings an unbuttoned, headlong energy to the fast closing section. And Swenson might be just the singer to revive interest in a static early opera like a. She captures the full emotional range of the extended accompagnato recitative, from agitation to plaintive searching. The aria proper moves along nicely; the coloraturas, whether staccato or legato, are precisely placed without losing tonal body—it's a winner, bringing the recorded program to a terrific finish.
Mackerras offers stylish podium support throughout. He also devised the embellishments; they vary in ambition, but sound uniformly good in Swenson's voice. The sound is fine, though I don't think the engineers needed to mike the singer so closely—we'd still have heard her.