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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "The complete Italian cantatas for bass"

Raimund Nolte, bassa
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

rec: Sept 1 - 4, 2011, Berlin, Siemensvilla
Accent - ACC 24249 (© 2012) (65'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Score HWV 136a

Cuopre tal volta il cielo (HWV 98)a; Dalla guerra amorosa (HWV 102a)a; Nell'Africane selve (HWV 136a)a; Sonata for oboe, 2 violins and bc in g minor (HWV 404); Sonata for 2 violins [oboe, violin] and bc in g minor, op. 2,5 (HWV 390a); Spande ancor a mio dispetto (HWV 165)a

Xenia Löffler, oboe; Daniel Deuter, Wolfgang von Kessinger, violin; Caroline Kersten, viola; Bernhard Hentrich, cello; Tilman Schmidt, violone; Stephan Rath, theorbo; Stefan Maass, theorbo, guitar; Tobias Schade, harpsichord

It is generally known that in the baroque era the high voices were especially appreciated. A look at the operas of the time shows that the main roles - and certainly the heroic - were usually scored for sopranos and altos, which were often performed by castratos. In comparison the lower voices of tenor and bass were given minor roles, or the roles of the bad boys. As there is a close connection between opera and the genre of the chamber cantata the far majority of compositions of the latter category is also written for a high voice. This disc includes four rare specimens of cantatas for bass.

A closer look at the music history of the baroque era reveals that the bass voice was certainly appreciated. In Italy singers with a particularly low voice were singing in some churches; they were called contrabasso. For instance, in the late 15th century, when Josquin was active as a singer in Rome, Bertrandus de Vaqueras sang as a contrabasso in the choir of San Pietro; in 1483 he joined the papal choir. In the 17th century some Italian composers, in particular Giulio Caccini and Giovanni Puliaschi, composed solo pieces for a voice with a wide range, which Caccini described as a bass who also could sing tenor. Such vocal acrobatics were not lost on composers of the 18th century either. In particular Cuopre tal volta il cielo and Nell'Africane selve require a remarkably wide tessitura, and are therefore not suitable for just any bass. He has to be able to sing in the range of the baritone, but also hit notes at the bottom of the bass range. No wonder that there are not that many recordings of these cantatas.

It is very likely that Handel wrote these two cantatas for a specific singer, Domenico Antonio Manna, who was involved in the marriage celebrations for the Duke of Alvito in July 1708 in Naples. At that time Handel was in Naples and composed these two cantatas. He also wrote Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, and it is quite possible that the role of Polyphemus was also written for and performed by Manna. One may wonder why pieces like these cantatas were composed. Composers certainly liked to provide singers with material which allowed them to show off. Many motets from that time, for instance those by Vivaldi, bear witness to that. However, that was usually not the only reason. There was no such thing as empty virtuosity. There was always a connection between text and music, and extremities in a vocal or instrumental part were usually intended to express a specific Affekt. In Nell'Africane selve the extreme leaps in the vocal part illustrate the desperation of the lion captured in the net and trying to find a way out. In Cuopre tal volta il cielo they are used to depict a storm at sea. In both cases these pictures are metaphors: in the former cantata the lover has lost his freedom thanks to the "winged god", whereas in the latter the lover compares the storm with his suffering.

Spande ancor was composed in Rome, and may have been written for a certain Cristofano who also performed the role of Lucifer in Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione. Here again natural phenomena like dark clouds and a storm are used to depict the ups and downs of love: "From chasm to chasm falls the river, from ache to ache moves the heart". Dalla guerra amorosa turns to another common metaphor for love. In this cantata the protagonist urges the listener to "flee from the war of love" which in the second recitative is compared with poison. The cantata ends with a short recitative and arioso: "Flee, yes flee! He who lives in chains as a servant of love is uncertain of pleasure but sure of pain". These two cantatas are less extreme in regard to range, but even so require a considerable tessitura.

Raimund Nolte certainly has such a range, although the high notes come off better than the lowest. He hits them well, but they are rather weak. Those notes are in the range of the basso continuo, and as that part is scored with at least four instruments they are not that clearly audible. I don't find Nolte's voice very attractive, but that obviously is a matter of taste. I know only one recording of these cantatas, by Jean-Louis Bindi (Stradivarius, 1996), which is rather disappointing. Nolte is definitely better, and the expression in these cantatas comes off quite well. Even so, I don't think this is the ideal performance, although I am not sure if there are any singers who are fully able to master the whole range in these cantatas. The Batzdorfer Hofkapelle delivers good performances of the instrumental parts as well as the instrumental pieces which are added to the programme.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Raimund Nolte
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

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