George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Handel in Italy
Texts and translations not included BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95496 [14 CDs: 749:25]
On paper, a boxed compilation of work from a particular phase of a composer’s career makes perfect sense. This 14cd ‘Handel in Italy’ set from Brilliant Classics is such an issue, the contents having (almost exclusively) been composed during his relatively brief (1706-9) sojourn there. The vast majority of the pieces are vocal – mainly cantatas composed due to the patronage of three influential individuals, namely the Cardinals Pamphili and Ottoboni, and the Marquis Francesco Ruspoli. Most reveal the readily identifiable compositional fingerprints of the mature Handel familiar from his later operas, oratorios and indeed instrumental works. Indeed it will quickly become apparent to aficianados of his later output that while the works themselves contained herein are largely unfamiliar, much of the material is not- Handel’s practice of course was to recycle many of his inspired early ideas in larger, later (and eventually more renowned) pieces.
The local composers who really mattered at this point were the Scarlatti pčre et fils (Alessandro and Domenico- Handel’s exact contemporary) and their more colourful and controversial predecessor Stradella, while the revered violinist Arcangelo Corelli was developing new instrumental forms. Each of them influenced Handel’s work to a greater or lesser degree during this period, which many commentators view as his formal and technical apprenticeship prior to the completion of the more extended masterpieces which would follow.
As the all-too-brief notes to this set explain, opera per se was largely frowned upon in Rome at this time where the form by now was seen as corrupting and immoral, not least by Pope Clement XI. The Accademia degli Arcadi continued to be influential; this period witnessed a simplification of both plot and form, and a return to the more innocent influence of pastoral mythology. Composers of the time and place were thus drawn (out of both propriety and practicality) to the shorter forms of Cantata and Serenata, which were still built on the foundations of Aria and Recitative but tended to be shorter, less complex and certainly less controversial. Handel wrote well over 100 of these works and the influence of the composers named above lends the best of them a radiant Mediterranean countenance which can be really beguiling in the best recordings, but whose inspiration can seem rather limited when listening to the oeuvre en masse, especially in performances which are workaday and competent rather than involving and inspired. In this way a set such of this, while it may appear an attractive prospect for one’s shelf (and avoids the need for a bank loan), actually presents something of a mixed blessing.
I have no intention of reviewing each of the fifty or so works in this set, simply to point out some (personal) individual highlights and identify some more general pitfalls. Much of the content has been released on Brilliant Classics before as part of their 65CD Handel Edition (not ‘Complete’ edition incidentally) whose MusicWeb International review can be found here.
Among the discs featuring in that box are the first four discs in this set, four volumes of Cantatas for Soprano, and I can only echo the thoughts of Roger Blackburn regarding the merits of soloist Stefanie True in many of these occasional pieces. Indeed, these works might well have go under the radar of many otherwise fervent Handelians – I suppose they could be seen as ‘slight’ compared to the operas and oratorios especially in terms of their Arcadian subject matter, if not their brevity. But rest assured there are many beauties here and Ms True offers clear diction (though it is clear she is not a native Italian), an agile technique, especially in terms of ornamentation and neat characterisation (in somewhat undemanding roles, it has to be said). The accompaniments of Contrasto Armonico are crisply played and light on their feet throughout. The two most extended works here are the opening Da quel giorno fatale, composed for Cardinal Pamphili, and the delicious pastoral Aminta e Fillide which occupies a disc to itself and where True is paired with fellow soprano Klaartje van Veldhoven whose voice beautifully complements that of her Canadian counterpart.
While neither of these performances outstay their welcome they are a little too polite for me, especially when compared with the wonderful recordings of this repertoire by La Risonanza under Fabio Bonizzoni on Glossa, and featuring truly superb soloists such as Roberta Invernizzi (in Da quel giorno - GLOSSA GCD 921521) and Maria Grazia Schiavo and Nuria Rial (in Aminta – GCD 921524). While the Brilliant box unquestionably offers excellent value, the admittedly full-price Glossa discs truly bring these pieces to life and reveal them to be youthful masterpieces. It has to be said that True’s voice sounds a liitle monochrome (to my ears at least) in comparison to the multi-hued delights offered by the Glossa soloists. It should be added that the recordings of these cantatas (across seven full-price discs) were very much a labour of love for Bonizzoni and the extra commitment of soloists and the superbly drilled ensemble is almost tangible. These four Brilliant discs feel merely workmanlike by comparison. A brief overview of the Bonizzoni cantata recordings was provided on Musicweb by Brian Wilson some years ago and can be accessed here.
I am more impressed by Disc 5 of these cantatas for soprano. When Brilliant released this as a single disc in 2012 it was billed as a world premiere recording. The cantata Mira Lilla gentile is given in two versions, one with violin obligato, the other with cello, winningly played by Musica Perduta’s leader Renato Criscuolo. The more melancholy tone of the latter probably better matches the spirit of the text, an account of unrequited love, but both accounts are splendidly performed and this work surely deserves to be better known. The characterful soloist is the rich toned Valentina Varriale who also shines in the couplings which are also appropriately paired. La caduta di Icaro relates to the Icarus legend and is actually Anonymous, although the same text , authored by the aforementioned Cardinal Pamphili also features in the final work here - Tra la fiamme HWV 170. (Stefanie True’s interpretation of this cantata can also be heard on Disc 2.) One incidental delight of this disc is provided by Michele Carreca’s archlute which adds ripe Mediterranean colour to the splendid ensemble.
On the face of it a similar comparison between the Brilliant and Glossa recordings of Apollo e Dafne (here on Disc 6) might seem heavily weighted in favour of the latter, especially as it won Bonizzoni the 2007 Gramophone Award for Best Early Music Recording. I am not so easily persuaded in this direction, however. A previous, detailed Musicweb review of the Brilliant offering by Johan van Veen highlighted the fast tempi presented by Jed Wentz and his lively group Musica ad Rhenum. I certainly agree that the performance is fleet of foot but Bonizzoni is faster still – in just about every section. Wentz’s gentler reading is beautiful and apt, no less convincing an interpretation of one of Handel’s better known early works, though I imagine many will favour the more immediate Glossa recording (GCD921527). This features yet more superb singing from Invernizzi and from Thomas Bauer as Apollo but the dramatic contrasts favoured on that recording are perhaps a little more exaggerated than in Wentz’s reading. Tom Sol is certainly an assertive Apollo but he also knows how to cool things down – I found his final aria Cara pianta beautifully restrained and really moving. Apollo e Dafne is preceded hereby a spirited reading of the incidental music Handel composed for Ben Jonson’s play ‘The Alchemist’, the ensemble deftly accompanied here by Michael Borgstede, one of Brilliant’s resident Handel keyboard specialists. This disc is one of the highlights of the set for me.
Three of the discs in the set feature recordings that originally appeared on the Hungaroton label. The five short cantatas that constitute Disc 8 were recorded as recently as 2005. Anna Korondi’s voice possesses a lovely bloom, and the pared-back accompaniment in these works (just cello and harpsichord) is beautifully caught by the Hungarian engineers. Mária Zádori’s honeyed, if ever-so-slightly Slavic tones feature on Discs 9 and 10. In Notte placido e chieta , one of the youthful composer’s most atmospheric inspirations she is accompanied by the Capella Savaria under Pál Németh. This is a really luminous performance and while the recording is the oldest in this entire set (1988) it certainly doesn’t show.
Ovid’s poem Acis et Galatea presents the epitome of a ‘pastoral’ theme. Handel’s renowned masque on the story (HWV 49 - with text by John Gay) was first performed in 1718 but was preceded a decade earlier by its lesser-known cousin, the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo , supposedly commissioned for the wedding of the Duke of Alvito by the Duchess Donna Aurora Sanseverino in 1708. It is a delight from first note to last largely due to the fact that the comic villain, the cyclops Polyphemus shares equal billing with the two love birds. Moreover the role is performed by a bass whose jagged lines present a real feast of vocal acrobatics. Inevitably a half-decent Polifemo will steal the show and that’s certainly the case in the delightful performance here, which is spread across two discs. The Polifemo here is the American Mitchell Sandler. Handel’s writing for this part is extraordinary, the startling leaps and drops sound almost Webernian! Sandler takes the role in his stride, equally menacing and loveable. His pyrotechnics in the show-stopping bass aria ‘Fra l’ombre gl’orrori’ have to be heard to be believed. Stefanie True (yet again) and Luciana Mancini perform ably as the lovers and Concerto Armonico led by Marco Vitale are sensitive accompanists. I found this a most enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half.
Sandler’s heroics in fact save the day for the male soloists in this set, as this listener at least was disappointed by the contributions of the other men; I found the Spanish tenor Jorge Juan Morata a little wayward in the recently recorded disc of tenor cantatas (CD7), although the accompaniments are more convincingly realised, while countertenors Ralf Popken and Jochen Kowalski also underwhelm in repertoire originally released many years ago on Hungaroton and Capriccio respectively. In terms of the sopranos, the biggest disappointment in the box is found on the final disc of soprano duets, where Gemma Bertagnolli and Susanne Rydén sound under-rehearsed.
Overall then, how to sum up. Well the music itself is clearly the work of a young man, a vital and apposite soundtrack for long sunlit evenings. Although I wouldn’t encourage the curious listener to ‘pig out’ on it for hours on end – it’s repertoire that ideally needs to be savoured – preferably in small portions. By and large performances are decent and occasionally hit the heights. Recording standards are generally very good. The package is attractively presented, but notes are brief and texts are absent. The box certainly represents good value and is accordingly more likely to appeal to those enthusiasts working within budgetary limits. But there are revelatory performances of much of this repertoire to be found elsewhere, not least on the (pricier) Bonizzoni discs discussed earlier.
Contents CD 1 Cantatas for Soprano I [59:55]
Da quel giorno fatale, HWV99 [34:53]
Ditemi, o piante, HWV107 [9:17]
Care selve, aure grate, HWV88 [6:42]
Allor ch'io dissi addio HWV80 [7:48]
CD 2 Cantatas for Soprano II [57:18]
Un'alma innamorata, HWV173 [15:28]
O lucenti, o sereni occhi, HWV144 [18:46]
Aure soavi e liete, HWV84 [5:28]
Tra le fiamme, HWV170 [17:31]
CD 3 Arresta il passo (Aminta e Fillide), HWV83 [47:55] CD 4 Cantatas for Soprano III [50:31]
Clori, mia bella Clori, HWV92 [14:29]
Sans y penser (Cantate française), HWV155 [10:01]
Clori, vezzosa Clori HWV95 [5:32]
Pensieri notturni di Filli (Nel dolce dell'oblio), HWV134 [6:18]
Lungi n'andň Fileno, HWV128 [13:25]
(CDs 1-4) Stefanie True, soprano, Klaartje van Veldhoven, soprano; Marco Vitale, harpsichord / conductor; Contrasto Armonico recorded 2009-10 at the Oud Katholieke Kerk, Delft, Netherlands
CD 5 Cantatas for Soprano IV [69:17]
Mira Lilla gentile, cantata ŕ canto solo con violino obbligato [15:18] Anon - La caduta di Icaro, cantata a canto solo con violini [18:14]
Mira Lilla gentile, cantata ŕ canto solo con violoncello obbligato [15:07]
Tra le fiamme (Il consiglio), HWV170 [20:20]
Valentina Varriale, soprano; Mvsica Perduta, conducted by Renato Criscuolo, recorded November 2010 at Millenium Recording Studio, Rome, and December 2011 and May 2012 at the Oratorio dei Padri Barnabiti, Rome
CD 6 The Alchemist/Apollo e Dafne [58:12]
Incidental music to The Alchemist, HWV43 [18:53]
Apollo e Dafne (La terra č liberata), HWV122 [37:01]
Michael Borgstede, harpsichord (The Alchemist); Tom Sol, bass (Apollo); Nicola Wemyss, mezzo-soprano (Dafne)
Musica ad Rhenum, directed by Jed Wentz, recorded 2006
CD 7 Cantatas (for tenor)/Sonatas [52:07]
Ah, che pur troppo č vero HWV77 [12:52]
Sonata in B minor, Op 1 No 9, HWV 367a [14:43]
Dolce pur d’amor l’affano HWV109 [7:56]
Sonata in F, HWV363a [8:42]
Care selve, aure grate HWV88 [7:41]
Jorge Juan Morata, tenor; Recondita Armonia Ensemble, recorded September 2014, ‘Auditorio de Terrassa’, Spain
CD 8 Cantatas for Soprano V [49:58]
Dolce mio ben HWV108 [11:51]
Il Gelsomino HWV 164a [8:54]
Part, l’idolo mio HWV147 [9:16]
Chi rapi la pace al core? HWV90 [8:30]
Stelle, perfide stele HWV168 [11:22]
Anna Korondi, soprano; Rezsö Pertorini, cello; Judit Péteri, harpsichord, recorded 2005
CD 9 Cantatas for soprano and countertenor [60:19]
Notte placida e cheta HWV142 [16:18]
Ero e Leandro HWV150 [20:39]
Il duello amoroso HWV82 [22:59]
Mária Zádori, soprano; Ralf Popken, countertenor; Capella Savaria (on authentic instruments) directed by Pál Németh, recorded February 1988, Calvary Church, Szombathely, Hungary.
CD 10 Cantatas for soprano VI [41:19]
Crudel tiranno Amor HWV 97 [17:53]
Agrippina condotta a morire HWV 110 [23:26]
Mária Zádori (soprano); Concerto Armonico directed by Péter Szüts, Miklós Spányi , recorded 1995 CD 11 Various solo cantatas [70:23]
Dietro l'orme fugaci HWV 105 [13:53]
Figlio d’alte speranze HWV 113 [11:01]
Veronika Winter (soprano); Das kleine Konzert directed by Hermann Max, recorded March 2005, Sendesaal, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne
Splende l'alba in oriente HWV 166 [11:15]
Figli del mesto cor HWV 112 [8:22]
Mi palpita il cor HWV 132c [12:46]
Vedendo Amor HWV 175 [12.53]
Jochen Kowalski (alto), Karl-Heinz Passin (flute), Christine Schornsheim (harpsichord), Siegfried Pank (viola da gamba), Akademie für alte Musik, Berlin recorded July and October 1988, Paul-Gerhard-Kirche, Leipzig
CD 12-13 Aci, Galatea e Polifemo HWV 72 [44:05]+[41:11]
Stefanie True ,soprano (Aci); Luciana Mancini, mezzo-soprano (Galatea); Mitchell Sandler, bass (Polifemo); Contrasto Armonico directed by Marco Vitale, recorded October 2007, Oud Katholieke Kerk, Delft, Netherlands.
CD 14 Italian Duets [46:55]
Sonata in B Major [1:10]
Quel fior che all'alba ride, HWV154 [5:10]
Preludio in D Minor [1:11]
Vŕ, vŕ, speme infida, pur, HWV199 [7:08]
Amor gioie mi porge, HWV180 [6:35]
Entreé [1:52] Reinhard KEISER (1674-1739) - attrib Handel Caro autor di mia doglia, HWV181a [6:02]
Ahi, nelle sorti umane, HWV179 [5:33]
No, di voi non vň fidarmi, HWV189 [6:15]
Gemma Bertagnoli, Susanne Rydén, soprano; Harmonices Mundi, Claudio Astronio, conductor, recorded July 2009 at Vereinshaus, Lengmoos, Süd-Tirol