The slaying of Abel by his brother Cain was one of the favourite subjects of the 18th century Italians, at the time when the oratorio was having a phenomenal success in Rome and Venice. It was most probably in one of the palaces of the “Serenissima”, and not a church, that Scarlatti first performed this astonishing “sacred entertainment”, worthy of a “verismo” opera, in 1707… God and Lucifer confront each other in the very soul of Cain, his brother’s voice is heard from heaven, and the “spatial” treatment of the tonal levels all contribute to the effectiveness of what is almost expressionistic music – there is nothing left out of this incredible Baroque Biblical “thriller”!
You might think that Handel's Water Music, HWV 348-350, arguably the most familiar piece of Baroque music (the Four Seasons of Vivaldi can give it a run for its money, but its popularity is more recent), has received every possible interpretation. And you would be wrong, as the musicians of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin have shown in this Harmonia Mundi release, precisely recorded in Berlin's Teldex studio. You get a steady parade of innovations here, marked overall by, but not in the least restricted to, blisteringly fast tempos that turn the horn-dominated movements into tests of virtuosity. Unexpected dynamic contrasts and the unusual rhythmic treatment of the "Overture" to the Suite No. 1 (sample track one) are other novelties, but this veteran group is not out for shock value. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin operate without a conductor, and their coordination in these crisp prestos is worth the price of admission in itself. Their ability to act as one in really unusual shapings of each individual movement is remarkable, and the treacherous horn parts are near perfection in the hands of Erwin Wieringa and Miroslav Rovenský.
Recording an album of arias written expressly for Farinelli, one of the most legendary castratos of the eighteenth century, is brave; his name invokes a world of superhuman vocal feats, remarkable pathos, and a uniquely strong and brilliant tone that, for obvious anatomical reasons, will not be replicated by modern singers. But that clearly does not scare Vivica Genaux who, along with René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, dives into Farinelli's repertory as if it were her very own. She reveals a voice capable of dizzying speed and agility, and a refreshing ability to find in the highly ornamented, expression-through-excess style that typified opera seria of the time a sincerity and musical integrity that makes a case for its wider exploration.
No more making allowances for countertenors–now the best of the breed have voices as rich and as varied as those of any other range. Exhibit A: Gramophone cover boy Andreas Scholl. Unlike David Daniels and Brian Asawa, who made their splash on the opera stage, Scholl became famous as a concert and oratorio singer. He doesn't sing with Daniels's temperament and fire; along with a certain equanimity, he has a round, pleasing sound and a vibrato that's attractive but never intrusive. For his first operatic recording, Scholl chose his music wisely: rather than tempest arias or bursts of martial fury, he gives us long, beautifully shaped melody in the title aria and the famous "Verdi prati." He's at his delightful best in the "birdsong" and "hunting" arias from Giulio Cesare: the clean coloratura, detailed phrasing, and imaginative embellishment are reminiscent of Emma Kirkby in her prime. The instrumental soloists in those arias (violin and horn, respectively) are equally fine, as is the entire period-instrument orchestra. However, nearly half of the playing time on this disc is instrumental music–that seems rather much for a recording marketed as a showcase for a hot young singer. (The much-recorded concerto grosso "Alexander's Feast" in particular seems superfluous.) With that caveat in mind, this impressive disc won't disappoint. –Matthew Westphal
"Bach's unfinished Art of Fugue, published for still-debated reasons in open score, has been performed and recorded in dozens of different instrumental versions. But this one, by the veteran Akademie für alte Musik, founded in the former East Berlin, is unique; few others have differentiated the fugues by instrumental forces deployed, and perhaps in none has the overall effect been quite so kaleidoscopic as this one. (…) The sound engineering, a product of Berlin's Teldex Studio, is a major strong point." ~allmusic