Handel: Semele - Anthony Lewis (2CD)

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The New Symphony Orchestra of London, Anthony Lewis

A pioneering Handel recording of the 1950s in a new digital remastering, released on Decca CD for the first time.

The scholar and conductor Anthony Lewis was one of the early luminaries of the L’Oiseau Lyre label which became, over time, the early-music imprint of Decca. Drawing on his experience of conducting and staging Baroque opera both at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, and with the English Opera Group in London, he made recordings which have become milestones in the discography of Purcell and Handel.

The Eloquence release of Lewis directing Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen (482 7449) in 1957 was given an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone (December 2017), where it was welcomed as ‘a long overdue reissue’: ‘the first time his ground-breaking recording has been available in modern formats … The shifting moods of comedy, tragedy, charm and sense of spectacle are transparent throughout Lewis’s congenial performance.’

The same qualities infuse Semele. The cast is led by one of Britten’s favourite singers and a company member of the English Opera Group, Jennifer Vyvyan, whose pellucid soprano and exemplary technique were celebrated in 2017 by a series of Eloquence reissues including ‘Songs of England’ (482 5045), ‘Mr. Bach at Vauxhall Gardens’ (482 5387) and scenes and arias by Haydn and Mozart (482 5049).

Listeners who have grown up with period-instrument recordings may find themselves surprised and, like Gramophone’s first reviewer, ‘delighted’ by the sure sense of Handelian style exhibited by both singers and players, guided as they are by the sure and lively hand of Lewis. Ultimately, though, this is Vyvyan’s recording, from the haunting unease she brings to her opening ‘O Jove, in pity teach me’, with its wide, dissonant leaps, to Semele’s sublime death scene, to which Vyvyan brings that directness and emotional truth which was a hallmark of all that she sang.

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Miss Vyvyan […] warms up and it must be said that she negotiates the florid passages of the mirror aria [‘Myself I shall adore’] with almost uncanny lack of labour, which sounds very nice. Her tone is as limpid and the line as steady as a “wonderboy” cathedral treble and all in all her performance grows in stature as it proceeds and in human warmth too.’ Gramophone, August 1955

Competent singing well stylized without importunity (and in places transcending competence), a direction in general spirited, and a union of effort in a lofty cause create a feeling of authority not to be questioned.’ High Fidelity, May 1956

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Handel: Semele HWV 58
Edited by Julian Herbage

Jupiter - William Herbert
Cadmus - George Prangnell
Semele - Jennifer Vyvyan
Athamas - John Whitworth
Ino - Helen Watts
Somnus - George James
Apollo - Robert Ellis
Juno - Anna Pollak
Iris - Brenda Griffith

Chorus of priests, augurs, loves, zephyrs, nymphs, swains and attendants
The Saint Anthony Singers
The New Symphony Orchestra of London
Thurston Dart, harpsichord continuo
Anthony Lewis

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