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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Handel in Italy - Solo Cantatas"

Emma Kirkby, sopranoa
London Baroque
rec: March 2007, Länna Church (Sweden)
BIS - SACD-1695 (© 2008) (67'23")

Agrippina condotta a morire (Dunque sarą pur vero) (HWV 110)a; Concerto a 4 in D (probably by Telemann); Figlio d'alte speranze (HWV 113)a; Notte placida e cheta (HWV 142)a; Un'alma innamorata (HWV 173)a

Ingrid Seifert, Richard Gwilt, violin; Charles Medlam, cello; Terence Charlston, harpsichord

When I was receiving this disc I was a bit sceptical, I have to admit. Emma Kirkby is a very fine artist, and over the years I have heard many splendid recordings of her, but I have never been impressed by her forays into Italian dramatic music. But in this recording she has surpassed my expectatations, although it also shows her limitations.

When Handel travelled to Italy he arrived in a country full of musical drama. The opera was one of the main genres of music, and if there was no opera - for example during Lenten in Rome - the oratorio was the alternative, musically and dramatically often not that different from opera. And, of course, at the homes of the aristocracy chamber cantatas were performed, often taking the form of miniature operas. Italian composers of the decades around 1700 must have written litterally thousands of them, one of the most prolific composers in this genre being Alessandro Scarlatti, who wrote around 600. There was an insatiable demand of such cantatas, especially as there was little interest in 'old music'. So there were ample opportunities for Handel to compose such works during his years in Italy. According to Handel's first biographer, John Mainwaring, he composed about 150 of such cantatas; more than 100 have come down to us.

There were two categories of chamber cantatas. Most were written for solo voice - usually soprano or alto - and basso continuo. The cantatas which are recorded here belong to the category of the cantate con stromenti, written for solo voice and instruments, mostly two violins. Most cantatas were about (unhappy) love, but this disc contains two cantatas with a diferent subject matter.

The first cantata, Notte placida e cheta (Calm and placid night), is the most optimistic in that the protagonist is consoled by sleep for a while. The second aria is rather playful: "If for an instant in a dream, Love, you make me happy I will offer you an eternally faithful heart until I die". You can leave it to Emma Kirkby to make the most of it: her diction and articulation are excellent as always, and she expresses the mood of this aria perfectly. On the whole the performance of this cantata is rather good. It is in the colouring of specific words or phrases where Ms Kirkby's limitations come to the fore. For instance, in the last recitative, a word like "ah" - rhetorically speaking called an exclamatio - doesn't get the dynamic treatment it needs.

These limitations are disposed even clearer in the next cantata. Un'alma innamorata (A soul in love) is more tragic, as the first aria testifies: "That poor heart, wounded by love, sighs, becomes angry if it lives faithfully". I had liked to hear stronger accents in the solo violin part, and likewise in the vocal part. Key words like "sospire" (sighs) and "martire crudel" (cruel torments) fall short in colouring and dynamics. The next aria is much better: "I rejoice, laugh and hope, and love more than one heart". The way Handel has translated this text comes perfectly through in Ms Kirkby's performance. The closing aria is also done well.

The third cantata is Figlio d'alte speranze (Son of high hopes). Abdalonymos, an impoverished descendant of the kings of Sidon spends his days working as a gardener and is quite happy about it. The music reflects this; only in the last aria the protagonist's happiness is overshadowed by the things to come: after Alexander the Great conquers Sidon Abdalonymos is instated as king. It is not one of Handel's best-known cantatas, and it is getting a very fine performance here. In the first and third aria the instrumental part is for violin solo, in the second the cello has an obbligato part. Both are very well played by Ingrid Seiffert and Charles Medlam respectively.

Much better known is the last cantata, Agrippina condotta a morire (Agrippina led to her death), which - as the title suggests - is also the most dramatic. Agrippina knows her son Nero is going to kill her and in the cantata we hear her being torn between hatred and anger towards her son on the one hand and her love for him on the other. It is in the expression of anger and hatred that Ms Kirkby can't quite deliver what a piece like this needs. I have to say that she is more free in expression and certainly more dramatic than she used to be in this kind of repertoire 15 years or so ago. Her voice also has gained strength and weight, but I still think this cantata needs a more dramatic voice with a stronger low register and also a wider dynamic range. In particular the 'scena' with its sequence of aria-like passages and recitatives is a bit pale and doesn't really bring out the power of Agrippina's outbursts. This is also reflected in the instrumental parts which are a too flat.

In between an instrumental piece is performed, the Concerto a 4 in D. It is very well played, but stylistically it is out of step with the rest of the programme. It is quite polyphonic, and a number of scholars think it was written by Telemann. A composition of undoubted authenticity had been a better choice.

As one may gather from what I have written I have mixed feelings about this disc. On the one hand, it is better than I expected, and - with the exception of the last cantata - the performances vary from pretty good to excellent. I note with satisfaction that Emma Kirkby treats the recitatives with the right amount of rhythmic freedom. Her ornamentation is always spot on and tasteful, and one doesn't need to fear the exaggerations some of today's baroque primadonnas are guilty of. On this disc Ms Kirkby demonstrates again her fine artistry, and no admirer of her art should miss this disc. On the other hand, it is disappointing that the longest cantata on this disc isn't receiving a really good performance. I had liked the artists make a different choice from the large number of works Handel has written in this genre. Having said that, to me the positive aspects outweigh the negative, and this makes me recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Emma Kirkby
London Baroque

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