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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122)

Myrsini Margariti (Dafne), sopranoa; Nikolay Borchev (Apollo), bassb
Dir: Bernhard Forck

rec: Sept 2009, Leipzig, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche
Avi-Music - 8553200 (© 2009) (57'43")

Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122)ab; Concerto grosso in a minor, op. 6,4 (HWV 322); Suite in G (HWV 353); Suite in B flat (HWV 352)

During his stay in Italy Handel contributed to some of the most popular musical genres at the time. Among them was the cantata. Thousands of such works were written in the decades around 1700. The main composer in this genre was Alessandro Scarlatti. His cantatas, usually consisting of two pairs of recitatives and arias, became the standard. Handel also composed a large number of such cantatas.

Because of their subject matter and their theatrical character the chamber cantatas - mostly scored for solo voice and basso continuo - were close to opera. Quite apart from these there were more elaborate compositions in which several voices were supported by an orchestra. Even more than the chamber cantatas such works can be considered pocket-size operas. Handel's cantata Apollo e Dafne belongs to this category.

Handel probably started composing the cantata in Venice in 1709, but completed it in Hanover in 1710, when he took up his job as Kapellmeister to the Elector. The first performance seems to have taken place in February 1711 in London, at the occasion of the birthday of Queen Anne. She was enthusiastic about Handel's cantata, and so was the court chronicler who described it as "a fine consort, being a Dialogue in Italian, in Her Majesty's Praise, set to excellent Musick by the famous Mr. Hendel".

The cantata is for two soloists, representing Dafne (soprano) and Apollo (bass) respectively, with an orchestra of transverse flute, two oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. The work consists of the usual sequence of recitatives and arias, and a couple of duets. In his operas Handel proves to be a master of the musical depiction of characters, and this cantata is an early example of his skills in this department. Right from the start Apollo shows his true colours by boasting about his power which even Cupid can't surpass. That is a mistake as he falls in love with Dafne the moment he sees her. She resists his advances, but when he starts to stalk her she escapes by turning herself into a laurel tree. In the closing aria Apollo resigns himself to his fate: "Dear laurel, with my tears I shall water your green leaves".

With Nikolay Borchev the role of Apollo is excellently cast. He gives a perfect portrayal of the arrogance of Apollo, and his performance is technically assured and stylistically convincing. His diction and his performance of the coloraturas are impressive, for instance in the aria 'Sprezza l'arco'. Myrsini Margariti does equally well in her interpretation of the role of Dafne. She has a nice voice which is perfectly suited for this role. It is just a pity she sometimes uses a bit too much vibrato, which is especially noticeable in the aria 'Felicissima quest'alma'.

The recitatives are taken with the right amount of rhythmic freedom. In the dialogues the interaction between the two characters is very good. That is also the case in the duet 'Deh! lascia addolcire' in which the musical material for the two protagonists is strongly different, reflecting the antagonism between them. The sudden shift from aria to recitativo accompagnato in 'Mie piante correte', when Apollo discovers that Dafne has turned into a tree, is realised in a truly theatrical manner, taking the listener by surprise. There is just one defect in this performance: some dacapos are a bit short on ornamentation.

Handel had already touched the subject of this cantata when he worked at the Hamburg opera. But his opera 'Die verwandelte Daphne' has been lost, and it is assumed the two orchestral suites HWV 352 and 353 contain instrumental music from this opera. The Suite in B flat is performed here as a kind of overture, as the cantata doesn't have any. That works pretty well, but the inclusion of the Suite in G in the cantata itself, immediately before the first entry of Dafne, is a less convincing decision. In my view it interrupts the dramatic flow of the cantata.

These instrumental suites are beautifully played, though, and so is the Concerto grosso in a minor which concludes the disc. The orchestra produces a nice sound of great transparency. The slow movements of the concerto grosso are played with expression, and the rhythmic pulse of the fast movements is perfectly explored. In the cantata the orchestra underlines the drama, and the basso continuo section deserves praise for pushing the performance forward. I don't quite understand, though, why Apollo and Dafne each have their own keyboard, the organ and the harpsichord respectively. The use of an organ in this kind of repertoire is questionable anyway.

It is a shame that the booklet is not of the same standard as the performance. According to the tracklist the duration of this disc is 56'02", the reverse says it's 58'03" - both wrong. In fact, most timings in the tracklist are completely wrong as well. The first recitative is given as lasting 3'34", but it is 00'48". According to the tracklist the last aria takes 2'28", but it lasts 5'37". And if that is not enough, the booklet does not include the lyrics. This disc is produced in cooperation with the Händel-Haus in Halle. I don't understand why this institution accepts this kind of sloppiness.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Händel-Haus Halle

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