Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto
A Comparison of the Best Available Recordings & Ongoing Review
Movement-by-movement comparisons of the recordings by Marc Minkowski (DG-Archiv 2003), René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 1991) and Jean-Claude Malgoire (Astrée 1995) [CD details], listed in each case in order of preference. Ratings are on a scale of 1-10 (10 is best). Texts including the non-literal English versions are from the facsimile librettos reproduced in Harris. (For an interesting discussion about English translations in London opera librettos, see Price, Milhous & Hume, Italian Opera in Late 18th Century London, Vol. 1, pages 34-37.)
Tolomeo, Sì spietata. II-4. Allegro, e staccato. Common time. HG page 67.
Jacobs: Derek Lee Ragin. 5'18. CD 2, track 10. Outstanding performance, and truly staccato, unlike the two others. Best ornaments and cadenzas of the three. But: I can't hear a harpsichord or lute -- as in most live performances of early music. Rating: 8.
Malgoire: Dominique Visse. 3'05. CD 2, track 10. About the same speed as Jacobs, despite the timing difference, which reflects longer pauses at cadences by Jacobs. Even though I like Visse's distinctive voice and don't mind listening to this aria over and over, it's clearly inferior to Ragin's version. Visse does not sing staccato, he has a weak voice that is nearly drowned out by a prominent lute, and his minimal ornaments are rather poor, including octave up hooting. Rating: 5.
Minkowski. Bejun Mehta. 2'50. CD 2, track 15. Much faster than the others -- too fast, IMHO, and apparently too fast for Mehta, who sings legato with lots of vibrato. His ornaments aren't bad, but he ends the repeat of the A section with an octave-up screeching cadenza. Rating: 2.
Sesto. La giustizia. III-5. Allegro, common time. HG page 113.
Minkowski: Anne Sofie von Otter. CD 3, track 13. 3'40. All three performances are at about the same speed. This is the best of the three, but far from ideal. von Otter is simply unable to execute a basic trill, which I find amazing for such a high profile performer of early music. Rating: 6.
Jacobs: Marianne Rørholm. CD 3, track 10. 3'46. I can hear the harpsichord! Voice OK but unexceptional. No trills. Missed opportunities to ornament. Ends with a screechy cadenza. Rating: 3.
Malgoire: Eirian James. CD 3, track 16. 3'49. Unattractive, heavy voice with lots of vibrato and heavily rolled r's. Minimal ornamentation, but ends with an unpleasant cadenza to her highest sustainable note. Rating: 1.
Cesare. Al lampo dell'armi. II-8. Allegro, common time. HG page 79.
The range in this aria for Senesino is an octave plus one note (c' to d"), yet the cadenzas and ornaments on these recordings range at least one tone lower and at least 2 1/2 tones higher. Before extending parts beyond what the composer contemplated, singers should demonstrate that they have mastered performance within the range of the part -- which would be a rare achievement indeed.
Minkowski: Marijana Mijanović. CD 2, track 24. 3'07. Best voice of the three by far, but performs the most annoying ornaments, first going up an octave over the written note to f'', then down an octave below the written note to b-flat at the end of the repeat. Rating: 7.
Malgoire: James Bowman. CD 2, track 28. 3'27. Prominent lute continuo. Good trill. Minimal ornaments, but an unpleasant, hooty cadenza up an octave at the end of the B-section. The cadence at the end of the A-section is marked "Adagio", but he fails to slow down to ornament it properly. Quite listenable. Rating: 5.
Jacobs: Jennifer Larmore. CD 2, track 14. 3'35. Much faster than Malgoire, but slows down at the cadences. Octave up screechy ornaments and cadenzas. Ouch! Soloists sing the coro, Mora, Cesare mora, as in Handel's time but unlike the other recordings, which use choruses. Rating: 3.
Cleopatra: Piangerò. III-3. 3/8 time. No tempo marking at beginning. B-section marked Allegro. HG page 100.
Jacobs: Barbara Schlick. CD 3, track 7. 6'02. Easily the best of the three. Fine, clear voice with restricted vibrato. Hits high notes spot on without slipping and sliding. Soloist forward, but can hear lute continuo and flute. Rating: 9.
Minkowski: Magdalena Kožená, CD 3, track 7. 6'04. Much more vibrato than Schlick. Sounds best when singing at lower volume, as in the repeat, but her voice is unattractive when overstressed. Ornaments not bad. Rating: 5.
Malgoire: Lynne Dawson. CD 3, track 10. 5'03. Shaky, constricted voice with above average trill. Prominent lute, but flute not easy to hear. A-section taken faster than the others, but B-section taken slower. B-section cadenza up to a sustained high note. Rating: 3.
Sesto & Cornelia. Duet: Son nato / nata a lagrimar / sospirar. I:11. 12/8 time, Largo. HG page 48.
A beautiful Siciliana, and my favorite movement in Guilio Cesare. None of these performances is ideal. The best I have heard was by Stephanie Blythe as Cornelia with Christopher Hogwood at Symphony Hall, Boston (Handel & Haydn Society).
Malgoire: Cornelia: Guillemette Laurens, Sesto: Eirian James. CD 2, track 5. 7'28. The best Cornelia of the three. Handel wrote "senza cembalo" where the soloists come in, but I can't hear a harpsichord in the ritornellos on this recording or on Minkowski's, as Handel's notation would suggest. Rating: 6.
Jacobs: Cornelia: Bernarda Fink, Sesto: Marianne Rørholm. CD 2, track 3. 7'37. Slightly faster than Malgoire, but longer pauses at cadences. I can hear the harpsichord in ritornellos. A worthy alternative. Rating: 5.
Minkowski: Sesto: Anne Sofie Von Otter; Cornelia: Charlotte Hellekant. CD 2, track 2. 8'46. Larger, richer orchestral accompaniment. Wobbly Cornelia spoils it for me. It's also quite slow, which may be justifiable. I can't think of another Handel Siciliana marked "Largo". Rating: 3.
Achilla: Tu sei il cor di questo core. I-11. Allegro. HG page 45.
Malgoire: Nicolas Rivenq. CD 2, track 3. 5'10. This is a very difficult bass aria with many bars above c', but with a range down to AA. (All three soloists lack volume on the AA.) Malgoire and Jacobs take it at about the same speed -- about the maximum speed at which it can be sung competently -- while Minkowski takes it noticeably faster. This performance has the best overall sound. The lute and harpsichord can be heard, though not prominently. It's the only one of the three in which the soloist executes a cadenza on the held note at the fifth bar after he enters on the repeat, which would appear to have been Handel's intent. Rating: 6.
Jacobs: Furio Zanasi. CD 2, track 2. 5'37. Not as pleasant or tuneful as Malgoire, but more pauses make it an interesting performance. I can just barely hear the harpsichord. Rating: 5.
Minkowski: Alan Ewing. CD 1, track 28. Fast and loud. The singer has to race to keep up and strain to be heard over the orchestra. There is a hint of a weak harpsichord in the background. The voice is shaky, with constant vibrato, but it's difficult to find fault with a soloist performing difficult passages at such high speed. Rating: 4.
Cesare: Empio dirò tu sei. I-3. Allegro. HG page 13.
Minkowski: Marijana Mijanović. CD 1, track 7. 3'40. Mijanović has the best voice of anyone on the three recordings, but her performances are marred by uninformed ornamentation and soaring cadenzas. The written range in this aria is c' to d'', with an e'' option on the last eighth note in the singer's second bar. The implication, I believe, is that Senesino confined his ornaments and cadenzas approximately to this range, within which he was unsurpassed, at least in London. Mijanović gets up to a'', with a sustained g''. Minkowski's recording is, as usual, the fastest of the three, in part because he speeds up in the B section. Rating: 7.
Malgoire: James Bowman. CD 1, track 6. 3'42. A completely different balance than on Minkowski, with a softer orchestra but prominent lute and no detectable harpsichord. As typical for falsettists, Bowman lacks volume below f', but he hoots up to g''. Rating: 6.
Jacobs: Jennifer Larmore. CD 1, track 4. 3'53. Yet a different recorded sound, with a very close-miked soloist and harpsichord. An unremarkable voice with weakness on the low notes. Rating: 5.
Cleopatra: Da tempeste. III-7. Allegro. HG page 117.
Jacobs: Barbara Schlick. CD 3, track 12. 6'12. An oddity on modern Handel recordings: ornaments and cadenzas are consistent with historical sources. Taken at about the same speed as Malgoire, though it consumes less time because of an extended cadenza by Dawson. More vibrato than desirable, but an able performance. Harpsichord continuo. Rating: 8.
Malgoire: Lynne Dawson. CD 3, track 19. 6'31. Quite a pleasant sound, with lute continuo. Rating: 7.
Minkowski: Magdalena Kožená, CD 3, track 16. 5'28. I think the engineers may have overloaded Kožená's loudest notes, as her frequent fff passages sound distorted. Regardless of the cause, they are not pretty. However, she has best sound of the three below g', and her voice is quite listenable in softer passages. The octave leaps and runs in the repeat and cadenzas are typical of what passes for "authentic performance" nowadays. Rating: 6.
Additional arias will be compared as time permits.