Danielle de Niese: "Beauty of the Baroque"
Arias by Bach, Dowland, Handel, Monteverdi, Pergolesi, Purcell. The English Concert, Bicket. Texts and translations. Decca
This is a surprising performance. For an artist as closely associated with the stage as Danielle de Niese — especially after her bathing scene as Cleopatra in Glyndebourne's Giulio Cesare — cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach make unlikely repertoire. Several works on this disc come from the early Baroque, and one composer, John Dowland (d. 1626), dates to the Renaissance. Yet these early selections, often in a plainer style than Handel's, find the soprano at her most alluring.
In some respects, de Niese is not a typical Baroque virtuoso. She brings less of a clean, instrumental quality to her singing than specialists such as Arleen Auger, Emma Kirkby or Cecilia Bartoli. Instead, one hears more vibrato, frequent covered tone and a habit of smoothing rather than brightly articulating passagework. Ornaments are subtle, with more quick mordents than sustained trills. These traits make her a limited partner, at least technically, to the pealing trumpet in Handel's prototypical display piece "Let the Bright Seraphim."
Where she truly excels is in the more gentle, persuasive melodies — often insinuating and seductive — of Dowland's romantic/erotic songs and the music of Monteverdi (or, in L'Incoronazione di Poppea, music long attributed to him). She exploits opportunities for rubato and expansion, stretching and coloring the long vowels of the English composer's "Come again: sweet love doth now invite" and spicing its consonants in a manner that is almost suggestive.
She brings the same beguiling fervor to Monteverdi's playful "Quel sguardo sdegnosetto," from Scherzi Musicali, and especially to the concluding duet from L'Incoronazione, in which she manages to blend warmly with the excellent Andreas Scholl.
What most marks de Niese's singing throughout this program is a fresh, personal quality. The listener senses the force of vivid character traits, which can make a cantata sound operatic. Some ears might prefer more of an effortless, dulcet upper register to crystallize the spirituality in "Guardian angels, oh, protect me," from Handel's Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, words sung by the allegorical figure of Beauty. What we hear here is more heated, a passionate yearning from an earthbound voice.
The same mood prevails in her warmly rendered aria from Acis and Galatea,and in a version of a Bach cantata excerpt known in English as "Sheep May Safely Graze," in which the heavy organ obbligato and slow tempo only exaggerate the soprano's sultriness. In the duet with Scholl from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater,the countertenor excels at dark mourning, with his depressed pitch on droning phrases; de Niese offers a welcome complement in the brief work's emotional climax by soaring to a full-throated, passionate G on "dolorosa."
At times the program seems almost casually assembled, with no recitatives to introduce arias and a reliance on familiar music — "Ombra mai fu," from Handel's Serse, in the alto key, and Dido's lament from the Purcell opera — regardless of suitability to the singer.
The English Concert under the expert Harry Bicket provides brilliant, flexible accompaniment. There is an especially infectious energy in the pacing and phrasing of one of the Bach numbers, "Sich üben im Lieben," from cantata 202, with delightful oboe playing by Katharina Spreckelsen. The buoyant rhythms here, like the soprano's warmth and impish text-pointing, are enough to banish any concerns about period style.
DAVID J. BAKER