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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Written in 1775, Haydn’s oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia, tells the story of Tobias and the Angel from the Apocrypha. In the title-role Anders Dahlin sings with a pleasant, clear tenor, and the bright soprano Roberta Invernizzi takes the role of the Angel, Rafael. In this German radio recording Andreas Spering is the lively conductor with the Cologne Vocal Ensemble and the Capella Augustina. Well-balanced sound. Not a great work by very enjoyable.

James H. North
Fanfare, May 2008

This is the first period-instrument recording of Tobias, and it does the work proud. The soloists, most of them young singers with burgeoning international reputations, do a bang-up job. The role of Anna, Tobias’s mother, dominates the first CD; mezzo Hallenberg is superb, producing the full low notes of this alto role smoothly, yet soaring with ease into near-soprano ornamentation. Invernizzi, an early-music specialist, nails the angel’s high coloratura throughout. Dahlin has a lovely, smoothly produced tenor and makes Tobias’s recitatives as dramatic as his arias. Karthäuser is fine as Sara, Tobias’s new wife; she decorates her line less than the others do, but manages her “cadenzas” as well as any of them. Borchev, all of 26 when the recording was made in 2006, not only sings with exceptional legato for a bass but also convinces us that he is an aged blind man. VokalEnsemble Köln is potent and clear in Haydn’s choruses—two of which were written for a 1784 production. Its delivery of the giant fugue in the finale of part I is magnificent. Capella Augustina is rich and deep, with colorful strings and winds; its natural horns are wonderful. It is much to conductor Spering’s credit that, as the hours pass, one becomes ever more deeply involved in this tenuous masterpiec… Naxos’s recording does not create a sonic spectacular, but it is exceptionally well balanced, with every voice, word, and instrument heard clearly in proper perspective. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, February 2008

The oratorio was one of the most prominent genres of vocal music in the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular Italian composers produced a large number of them, and these were frequently performed at the court in Vienna, where they were especially appreciated. This preference lasted until the last quarter of the 18th century. It can be hardly surprising that Haydn's oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia was very well received when it was performed in Vienna in 1775. But at that time the public taste started to change. Only six years later an attempt to perform this oratorio again failed, as it was considered much too long. Haydn was asked to rework it, but his request to be paid for his efforts was rejected. The performance was cancelled with the argument that no singer was available to sing the role of Anna.

Haydn had written Il ritorno di Tobia at the request of the Vienna 'Tonkünstler Societät', to be performed at two benefit concerts for the financial support of widows and orphans of musicians. The story of Tobias was well-known and used by several composers. It is based on the apocryphal book of Tobias, but Haydn's librettist, Giovanni Gastone Boccherini - brother of the composer Luigi - concentrated on the end of the book, which tells about Tobias coming home from his adventures and curing his father of his blindness. In the first part we meet Tobias's parents, Tobit and Anna, who are eagerly awaiting the return of their son. Anna believes he is dead, and she bitterly opposes her husband's trust in God. But then she is proven wrong when Tobias returns. Not only that, he turns out to be married and presents his wife Sarah to his parents. He is also accompanied by a man, called Asaria, who in fact is the archangel Raphael in disguise. It is he who tells Tobit and Anna that Tobias has the power to cure Tobit's blindness. This is what the second part is about. Tobias uses the venom of a monster he has defeated to cure his father's eyes, but Tobit hardly can bear the light and says he prefers things as they were. At the advice of Asaria Sarah then ties a black cloth round Tobit's eyes, which is then loosened little by little. This way his eyes can get accustomed to the light. When Tobit, Anna, Tobias and Sarah want to give Asaria a large sum of money as he has in fact caused Tobit to see again and Tobias to return home safely, he reveals that he isn't human but the archangel Raphael, and then disappears in a cloud. Those who stay back bring praise to God, and are joined by the people.

There is little difference between this oratorio and the operas of Haydn's time. It starts with a Sinfonia in two sections, slow - fast. Then follows a sequence of - mostly accompanied - recitatives and arias, and the first part ends with a chorus. The second part again begins with a short instrumental introduction, which leads to another accompanied recitative of Anna, Sarah and Raphael, which is very much like an opera scene, in which the vocal sections are interspersed by instrumental sections. The oratorio closes with another chorus. The operatic character of Haydn's oratorio is also reflected by the stage directions in the score, like "leaves", "is about to leave" or "kneels down and kisses Tobit's hand". When Raphael disappears the score contains the remark: "A cloud descends from heaven, it covers him, and he ascends in it". The stage directions explained to the audience what they didn't see - the performances in 1775 were not staged - but what is necessary to understand the development of the story.

The music Haydn has written is very dramatic. The most theatrical character is Anna, who is torn between feelings of despair and of hope. Right at the start we see the conflict between Anna and Tobit, as Anna accuses her husband of dreaming and falsely hoping that God will bring Tobias home. She herself doesn't share his trust and believes her son is dead. Her mood is brilliantly depicted in her aria 'Sudò il guerriero', which is preceded by an accompanied recitative in which the different moods of Anna and Tobit are strongly illustrated by the orchestra. Anna's despair and anger are in sharp contrast with the unshakeable hope and faith of Tobit, which is expressed in his aria 'Ah, tu m'ascolta', in which his words of faith in God - "I love you, I believe in you, I hope on you" - are supported by powerful chords from the orchestra. The casting of the two characters is spot on. Ann Hallenberg gives a very strong and impressive portrayal of Anna, and expresses her diverse moods brilliantly. I think this could have been done with a little less vibrato, though. Nikolay Borchev gives a good account of the role of Tobit. He doesn't sound very authoritative and powerful, but that is exactly in line with the quiet and unflappable character of Tobit.

Most arias are virtuosic and rather long, again just like in the opera. Anna has some of the most demanding arias, but there are also virtuosic arias for Raphael (Come se ai voi parlasse), excellently sung by Roberta Invernizzi, and Sarah. In the latter's aria 'Non parmi esser fra gl'uomini' the orchestra plays a particularly important role: almost all wind instruments are used here, whereas the strings are reduced to playing pizzicato. Sophie Karthäuser sings this aria very well: her excellent breath control allows her to produce an astonishing slow messa di voce. In her role as a whole, though, I sometimes find her a little uninvolved, something I have noticed in earlier recordings as well.

I have the same problem with Anders Dahlin, who is rather lacklustre and bland in his recitatives. He has a beautiful and pleasant voice, in particular in the high register. But the lower register is underdeveloped, and that makes his aria 'Quel felice nocchier' a little unsatisfying. Much better is his first aria, 'Quanda mi dona un cenno', in which he expresses his love for Sarah. This aria is breathtakingly beautiful, and so is Anders Dahlin's performance. In general I have the feeling, though, that he makes the character of Tobias a little softer than one would expect someone to be who has defeated a monster.

The orchestra has a very important role of its own in this oratorio. Far from merely accompanying the singers it is used to express the moods of the characters and the events as they unfold. As a result there are strong contrasts in the orchestral part, in particular in the accompanied recitatives. Haydn has also effectively used the orchestra to characterise the arias. This explains the colourful scoring, with pairs of flutes, oboes, cors anglais, bassoons, trumpets and horns, plus strings, timpani and basso continuo. The Capella Augustina - whose members are unfortunately not mentioned in the booklet - give top-class performances here, and the wind players are especially impressive.

Apart from the choruses which close both parts of the oratorio, there are also two choruses in the middle of each part. These are the result of Haydn's reworking for the performance of 1781, which never took place. Although Christoph Spering has chosen to follow the first version of 1775, he considered these choruses too good not to be used. I can understand that, but I had preferred them to be added separately at the end of a disc, allowing the listeners to include them if desired. Coincidentally the additional chorus in part 1 is at the end of the first disc, but the chorus in part 2 is not. Even so, both choruses are splendid pieces, and so are the original choruses of the first performance. The VokalEnsemble Köln gives outstanding performances: powerful, but also transparent and well-articulated, as the fugal sections of the closing choruses testify.

This oratorio is not really forgotten, and has been recorded before. But it is far less-known than Haydn's two later oratorios, 'Die Schöpfung' and 'Die Jahreszeiten, which is totally unjustified. 'Il ritorno di Tobia' is an engaging and enthralling piece of music, which interestingly shows some trademarks we know from the later oratorios. And this oratorio also suggests that Haydn was a very good opera composer, which his - still seldom recorded - operas confirm.

As far as the booklet is concerned, there are informative programme notes, and the lyrics are also printed. No English translation, the Naxos website has a German translation.

Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, February 2008

The return of Haydn’s early Italian oratorio

Probably no major Haydn work is harder to “sell” today than his Italian oratorio II ritorno di Tobia, composed for a Viennese benevolent society during the winter of 1774-75. Far from being a prototype Creation and Seasons, Tobia is in effect a sacred opera seria, powered by a succession of gargantuan arias, with, in its original version, just three choruses for contrast. For a 1784 revival Haydn spruced it up with two extra choral numbers, including a cataclysmic “storm” chorus that has become well known as the motet Insanae et vanae curae.

The prime stumbling-block for us is the libretto by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the more famous Luigi. With its murders, monsters and miracles, the story of Tobias from the Apocrypha could have been a composer’s gift. Instead, Boccherini laboriously observes Classical convention and sets Tobias’s adventures entirely in the past tense. When Tobias and his new wife, the serially widowed Sara (husbands one to seven have all been murdered by the demon Asmodeus), eventually appear, the action grinds forward with stultifying slowness, weighed down by reams of sententious moralising. “Delay could prove fatal”, says Tobias to his mother Anna as he prepares to cure his father Tobit’s cataract with the gall of a sea monster. He then launches into an eight- minute “parable” aria, to which his mother rejoinders, “A just sense of urgency spurs him on”.

Yet while Tobia is a virtual non-starter dramatically, Haydn’s music is carefully and elaborately composed and, provided you can adjust to the leisurely time-frame, often inspired. The choruses are all superb, the arias inventive and vastly challenging. They include spectacular vocal concertos, enlivened by Haydn’s genius for tone-painting, a dulcet F major love song for Tobias, and a terrific F minor “nightmare” scene for Anna. The oratorio’s jewel, though, is Sara’s radiant “Non parmi essere”, with its luxurious concertante writing for flutes, oboes, cors anglais, bassoons and horns.

This new recording is even better than that by Dorati (10/94 – nla). The pacing is generally sharper (crucial in the many accompanied recitatives), while the period instruments of the Capella Augustina make for altogether tangier, more transparent sonorities than Dorari’s smoothly upholstered RPO.

Valveless brass lour and exult in the choral numbers, while the faintly breathy, bucolic period woodwind carol enchantingly in “Non parmi essere”. This aria is also exquisitely sung by the pellucid-toned Sophie Karthäuser, a true classical stylist, who negotiates the coloratura in her opening aria with grace and panache. The other female singers match her in virtuosity and vocal allure. The bell-toned Roberta Invernizzi is properly dazzling in the flamboyant arias for the (disguised) Archangel Raphael, while mezzo Ann Hallenberg, whom I’ve often admired in Handel, uses the text imaginatively and brings a ferocious intensity to her nightmare aria, abetted by Spering’s dangerous energy and the baleful colouring of brass and cors anglais. In the predominantly lyrical role of Tobit, Nikolay Borchev impresses with his warm, softgrained bass and sympathetic phrasing. Only the pleasant but protein-deficient tenor of Anders Dahlin, as Tobias, left me wanting more. The choral singing is fresh and eager, though, as so often, the recorded balance rather favours the orchestra. There is also too much pingy harpsichord continuo for my taste. But these are minor drawbacks in a stunning performance of some glorious, under-valued music. Haydn lovers should snap it up as a matter of urgency.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, January 2008

This is a real find and a welcome addition to the Naxos catalogue. Haydn is justifiably famous for his oratorios The Seasons and The Creation. The latter has been recorded by these artists for Naxos to great acclaim. Now Andreas Spering and his Capella Augustina have unearthed Haydn’s first, all but forgotten oratorio, The Return of Tobias. The apocryphal subject of Tobias and the angel was extraordinarily popular in Haydn’s Vienna when he was composing this work, and he chose to home in on the section of the story when Tobias (Tobia) returns from his long absence from home and, with the help of his friend Asaria, aka the Archangel Raphael in disguise, cures his father’s blindness. Haydn takes this as an opportunity to create an oratorio which, while not as pacy or fast-moving as The Seasons and The Creation, contains much of beauty, and some very virtuosic singing for both chorus and soloists. Popular as the Tobias legend was in 1775, however, it quickly fell out of favour. It was furthermore felt that Haydn’s oratorio was too long (nearly 3 hours) and difficult to be easily revived so it fell out of favour and has barely been heard since. Length is less of an issue when you listen at home and, thankfully, the artists involved here make this difficult score seem all but effortless.

The first accolades have to go to the young soloists. We might hope that Nikolay Borchev would have sounded a little more weighty as Tobit, the blind father, but he brings pathos and sympathy to what could have seemed a dry character. His opening aria, Ah tu m’ascolta, oh Dio appropriately invokes sympathy for a man who seems to have lost all sympathisers on earth. Similarly Anders J. Dahlin is perhaps less forthcoming than we would expect from the hero of the story, but he brings a wonderfully mellifluous tone to the character of Tobias himself, from his first aria upon his return to his parental home, until the final miracle when his father is healed. 

The outstanding contributions, however, come from the three women soloists. Anna, Tobias’ aged mother, is characterfully sung by Ann Hallenberg. Her rich, fruity mezzo is perfect for the tone of despair the character needs at the opening, and she lightens her tone admirably when the mood of the piece turns more joyful in Part 2. Listen to her exciting opening aria (CD1, Track 4) and you will see how Haydn can create instant interest in the character, as well as how seemingly easily Hallenberg copes with it. Her nightmare aria is Part 2 is thrilling. Sophie Karthäuser tailors her tone to handle Tobias’ virtuous and dutiful wife, Sara. Most admirable of all, however, is Roberta Invernizzi, singing the role of Raphael. The angel is given appropriately difficult, often stratospheric music and Invernizzi sings it with flawless coloratura and effortless command of the technique.

The chorus seems totally convinced by this work and they throw themselves into their parts as if they were singing opera, which it often feels like they are. Two moments to watch out for: their fugal chorus that ends Part One is particularly exciting, and their stormy Part 2 chorus, Svanisce in un momento was resurrected by Haydn as his concert motet Insanae et vanae curae. The Capella Augustina, a period ensemble founded by Andreas Spering himself, plays this music as if it were written for it, and the chamber textures that Haydn is fond of using sound perfectly judged. Listen to Sarah’s Part 2 aria, Non parmi esser fra gl’uomini for a good example of how well orchestra and soloists blend.

Spering holds the whole thing together with assured control, but also a sense of spontaneity, as if the music is unfolding in precisely the correct manner. This CD is a welcome addition to the catalogue, and something worthy to set alongside the other great achievements of Haydn’s middle period. Three cheers to Naxos for choosing to give it such a distinguished outing on CD. The booklet contains commentary, synopsis and Italian texts, but no translations.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Haydn’s first oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia, never quite makes up its mind as to whether it should have been an opera, and I guess with an inventive producer it could well be staged, the score so full of immediately likable arias, many with a display of vocal virtuosity. Haydn was already forty-three when it was introduced to Vienna in 1775 to considerable acclaim, and in 1784 he added  - among the changes - two further choruses of merit. Both are included in this recording which otherwise uses the original score. It’s date of composition is highly significant as it comes in the middle of a period when Haydn was composing operas, and it is equally significant that it was another twenty years before he returned to oratorio. The story is slight, much of the first part taken up with his family lamenting the fact that Tobia has not returned from his excursion, his mother chastising his blind father, Tobit, for placing all his faith in God for his son’s return. Tobia eventually does return, and as already prophesised the work ends with Tobia returning sight to his father. That the story was an opera disguised as an oratorio comes with the need for Haydn to explain in words and music the ‘stage’ action. Why the work quickly slipped from the repertoire is unclear, and only recently has it been ‘rediscovered’. Andreas Spering adds to the general confusion by encouraging his singers to assume an operatic stance, both Ann Hallenberg and Sophie Karthauser revelling in the vocal acrobatics, their intonation impeccable even in the most demanding passages. Indeed Hallenberg is a dramatic mezzo of rare quality, the lower end of her voice so well supported, the long recitative and aria in the second part being the undoubted highlight of the release. The Swedish tenor, Anders Dahlin, takes time to warm to his role as Tobia, his long opening aria gone before his voice opens up, eventually taking the high notes in Quel felice nocchier with commendable ease. By contrast the Russian baritone, Nikolay Borchev, is in fine voice throughout, his easy projection bringing a rounded and smooth quality. Choral singing and orchestral playing is very good, Spering seemingly inducing in everyone the feeling of taking part in a lost masterwork. The studio recording from German Radio in Cologne is immaculately balanced and with infinite inner detail.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group