Love and Madness: Handel Arias

Johannette Zomer (sop); Bart Schneemann (oboe); Musica Amphion (Channel Classics CCS SA 29209)

5 April 2010 3 stars

Love and MadnessThere has been much recent interest in reviving every last note of Georg Friedrich Händel's vocal music, and it seems like new discs of his arias appear on the market almost monthly. There are literally dozens to choose from, many of which offer singing and orchestral playing of the highest quality. Therefore, the stakes are high for commercial viability, and it helps to have something unique to offer, such as rarely recorded repertoire or an appealing programmatic theme.

In the case of this new recording from Channel Classics, Handel Arias – Love and Madness, the selling point is the beguiling combination of voice and oboe. This is essentially a disc of duets for the Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer and Australian-born oboist Bart Schneemann. While both musicians offer exemplary style and proficiency, the disc ultimately falls short of the competition on a number of counts.

Johannette Zomer's singing is immaculate. Befitting the appropriate vocal technique for Baroque music, Zomer employs plenty of straight tone, though she mixes it up deftly with moments of generous vibrato. She meets the limited requirements for coloratura passagework with professionalism (if little excitement) and offers gorgeously poised phrasing and a firm vocal line throughout. Almirena's 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo is a model of controlled vocalism and restrained emotion. But while Zomer's naturally clear, limpid timbre falls gently on the ear, a limited palette of tonal colors means that all of the selections on the disc blur together into a haze of lovely but somewhat faceless singing. Likewise, she offers fine clarity of diction, but fails to truly illuminate the words, missing out almost entirely on a firm emotional connection with the texts. Therefore, arias for a powerful sorceress like Medea seem an odd choice, as Zomer doesn't bring even a fraction of the temperament that might make the music come alive. Another perplexing choice is Ariodante's 'Scherza infida': Zomer hasn't the color, vigor, or vocal intensity to give this touchstone aria the kind of spellbinding intensity it deserves. Perhaps most dispiriting is Zomer's almost total reluctance to ornament the repeated sections of her arias. She does include some minor variants, but they are so exceedingly modest as to be practically nonexistent.

Bart Schneemann contributes to the sonic homogeneousness by offering foursquare, yet thrillingly pristine oboe lines to many of the tracks on the disc. His playing is, frankly, glorious. He shows off ideally accurate pitch (as does Zomer), while producing a velvety, mahogany tone that is among the most alluringly beautiful woodwind sounds I've ever experienced. Yet, as with Zomer, there is something missing in terms of personal insight and/or interpretive panache. The listener is consistently aware that musicianship of the highest order is on display, and yet everything passes by slightly anonymously. Perhaps these two excellent artists endeavored to subjugate their own personalities in order to allow the spotlight to fall squarely on the composer.

Schneemann shines in Handel's early, four-part oboe concerto in g-minor. Yet even here, despite his phenomenal legato and technical facility, the end result is mellifluous, yet a bit bland. He completely avoids all extremes of tempo and dynamics, and thereby robs the piece of spark and individuality.

Perhaps Zomer and Schneemann might have offered more adventurous interpretations had the programming for this recital been more varied in style and tempo. Most of the selections are 'adagio'; this, again, contributes to a general impression of monotony. These fine artists would have been better showcased in a broader range of moods and tempi. The occasional 'vivace' aria would have injected some much-needed energy into the program, for example.

On a positive note, the recording includes several less often encountered arias, such as the cantata fragment 'Languia di bocca lusinghiera' and the arias 'Chi t'intende?' from Berenice and 'Caro, vieni a me' from Riccardo Primo. Pieter-Jan Belder and his ensemble Musica Amphion offer all the virtuosity one might desire in this richly orchestrated music. Helped by a comfortably forward sonic presence and a crystal-clear recording quality, the individual instruments are nicely delineated and contribute vividly textured accompaniments. In summary, this disc is not a 'must-have', although Handel collectors will find plenty to enjoy, and both Zomer and Schneemann are well worth hearing.

By David Laviska