This is a lovely recording. Stephanie Blythe's voice must be one of the most beautiful to be heard today: smooth as silk, warm as velvet, pure, dark, almost masculine at times, even in quality across a big range down to F-sharp. She can spin out endless phrases without strain. Her intonation is impeccable, her expressiveness heartfelt, simple, and direct. The program is a string of priceless jewels, opening with the famous "Ombra mai fu" from "Serse" (better known as Handel's Largo) and closing with the Agnus Dei from Bach's B minor Mass. However, with the exception of Juno's furious outburst of jealousy from Handel's Semele, the dramatic "Where shall I fly?" from his Hercules, and one fast, light aria from Giulio Cesare, everything is slow and primarily mournful. This seems to be in the nature of the contralto repertoire, but it does generate a certain sameness despite all attempts to create variety.
One of the highlights is the heartrending mother-son duet between Cornelia and Sesto from Giulio Cesare with the splendid countertenor David Daniels, but Blythe includes both Cornelia's and Cesare's arias, fulfilling a wish no doubt cherished by many great contraltos, but impossible to realize on stage. She seems more at home in Handel's worldly arias than in Bach's sacred ones, some of which--notably the "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion--sound a little too operatic. The violinist who plays the wonderful obbligato here is not named (and often inaudible); the fine wind soloists in the St. John Passion are also unidentified. The orchestra is good but rather stiff, the rhythm pedantic, the style, with normal tuning, semi-baroque. This is underscored by the truly baroque gamba solo in St. John. However, the beauty of the singing triumphs over all misgivings. --Edith Eisler