Written in the summer of 1749, Theodora was premiered in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 16 March 1750. This work, which Handel considered his finest oratorio, was a failure at first - Handel said bitterly that the hall was so empty that "there was room enough to dance there." Part of this failure could be explained by the earthquake that hit London in February of the same year and caused the upper classes to flee the city, but another possibility is that the subject matter of the oratorio - the rebellion of a woman against the power of the state - was a bit ahead of its time.
Vivaldi's sacred music is not so famous as that of his contemporaries Bach and Handel, so this is a bargain opportunity to catch up. You might think Vivaldi's playful, virtuoso Italianate character and Catholic context would produce radically different music, but in George Guest's urgent readings, the mixture of restrainedly exultant choruses and austerely beautiful arias are near-identical to Bach.
The castrato in Italian opera of the early 18th century had vocal power that was often associated with heroic roles, but Handel wrote several memorable villains for the voice type as well. Indeed, using the castrato's star quality to add depth to his bad guys was one facet of his operatic genius, and the idea of collecting a group of these arias is good enough to recommend this album even apart from the vocal gifts of Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata. And those gifts are considerable. Sabata is a true operatic countertenor, somewhat in the vein of Philippe Jaroussky (to whose album of Vivaldi heroic arias this release makes a fine companion).
Max Emanuel Cencic accurately describes himself as a mezzo-soprano rather than a counter tenor. His tone, while pure, is colorfully nuanced, nothing like the blanched purity that was once (but is thankfully no longer) stereotypical of counter tenors. A lifetime of singing the most advanced repertoire has given him a confident technique, exceptionally sure intonation, astonishing vocal power, and an effortless-sounding flexibility; at the age of six he sang the Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache on Zagreb" television, and he went on to become a soloist with the Vienna Boys' Choir. On this album he tackles some of Handel's most virtuosic and demanding mezzo arias, most of them relatively unfamiliar. /quote]
Using some of the finest early-music soloists of the day, Parrott and his forces give posterity a recording that welds tightly focused emotion to a laudable and uncommon feel for the music. The soloists produce appropriately light but well-focused tone and display an ability to negotiate the intricacies of Handel’s notes evenly and with an exceptional grasp of the phrasing required for successful performance. The choral lines are carefully etched and meticulously balanced, resulting in a superlative overall sound that—in spite of the small choir—is rich and capable of exceeding power when required.
Andrew Parrott’s period Messiah from the late 1980s was re-released a few years ago by EMI Virgin Classics, and the re-release amply documents the richness and staying power of this generation of Messiah performances—a richness now removed from the aura of novelty—the “uncle” has been clean shaven for quite a while now. In part, the richness of this performance derives from Parrott’s soloists, then the unrivalled stars of the English early music scene, including soprano Emma Kirkby, countertenor James Bowman, and bass David Thomas.