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GRAMOPHONE (02/2020)
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Alia Vox

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Reviewer: David Vickers 

The ostentatious musical charms and theatricality of Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernes barbarie (1716) are served vividly in this live concert recording made at the Philharmonie de Paris by Le Concert des Nations, who evidently had a field day bringing Vivaldi’s colourful instrumentation to life. Jordi Savall opts for a makeshift overture comprising an AndanteAllegro from RV562 that features rapier-like concertante violin with swashbuckling trumpets and punchy timpani before a Largo from L’estro armonico No 9 (RV230) bridges the gap into the bellicose opening chorus.

La Capella Reial de Catalunya’s dozen all-female voices transpose the tenor and bass parts up an octave, as might have been customary practice at the Ospedale della Pietà (the sticking point among musicologists is whether or not some ladies could have sung their choir parts at notated pitch). The only other recording to use an all-female choir is De Marchi’s abrasive account; Savall’s assertive Catalans sing with greater finesse and composure, singing dulcetly as Assyrians in praise of Judith’s beauty and as Judean maidens praying for deliverance (placed in the distance as if their voices are heard on the breeze). The final brassy chorus of triumph has plenty of gutsiness without losing a sense of shape and poise. Marianne Beate Kielland sings with mellow beauty in Judith’s supplication for Bethulia to receive mercy (‘Quanto magis generosa’, hushed rapture shared between muted strings and solo viola d’amore played by Manfredo Kraemer); she displays bravura intensity (the turbulent ‘Agitata infido flatu’) and yet elsewhere her voice has breathtaking delicacy when alluding to a turtle dove’s marital fidelity in partnership with Lorenzo Coppola’s soft chalumeau (‘Veni, veni, me sequere fida’), expositing the transience of mortal passions in cahoots with Rolf Lislevand’s mandolin (‘Transit aetas’), and lulling her drunken enemy to sleep in a lullaby with muted strings (‘Vivat in pace’). The moment when Judith prays for courage to decapitate the Assyrian general is accompanied solemnly by five-part violas da gamba (including Savall), violone and two theorbos. Marina De Liso has a fruitier timbre as the lovelorn victim Holofernes: his comparison at dusk of Judith’s beauty to the dawn (‘Nox obscura tenebrosa’) has silky string-playing, and De Liso’s seductive whispering forms an entrancing dialogue with oboist Paolo Grazzi and organist Guido Morini (‘Noli, o cara, te adorantis’). Rachel Redmond’s sparkling soprano has graceful nonchalance when Vagaus summons a chorus of servants to prepare a banquet (‘O servi volate’, accompanied extraordinarily by four theorbos), lightly sensual radiance when calling for zephyrs to breathe gently on his sleeping master (‘Umbrae carae, aurae adorate’, with a pair of pastoral recorders), and astonished horror and ferocious coloratura when invoking the vengeance of the Furies upon discovering Holofernes’ corpse (‘Armatae face, et anguibus’). Lucía Martín-Cartón’s bright-toned Abra (Judith’s servant and accomplice) has several lovely continuo arias, and Kristin Mulders conveys Ozias’s two arias with an authoritative swagger.

Savall’s direction has pacy dramatic momentum while allowing each number to breathe and speak for itself articulately. The addition of clattering tambourine to the drinking song of dissolute Assyrian soldiers is a rare misstep that detracts from Vivaldi’s two clarinets, but otherwise there is a synthesis of flair and subtlety that yields a gripping performance of Vivaldi’s only extant oratorio.

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