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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Apollo e Dafne, The Alchymist

Nicola Wemyss (Dafne), sopranoa; Tom Sol (Apollo), baritonea
Musica ad Rhenum
Dir: Jed Wentz

rec: 2006, [n.p.]
Brilliant Classics - 94600 (R) (© 2013) (64'24")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translation
Cover & track-list
Score Apollo e Dafne

The Alchymist, incidental music (HWV 43); Apollo e Dafne (La terra è liberata) (HWV 122)a

Apollo e Dafne is called a cantata which was one of the most popular genres in Italy at the time. It is quite different from the chamber cantata, though. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who had established the basic structure of the cantata. It comprised two pairs of recitative and aria, for a solo voice - usually a soprano - and bc. Sometimes one or two parts for treble instruments were added, mostly violins. Handel's cantata is different in that it is scored for two solo voices and an instrumental ensemble of transverse flute, two oboes, bassoon, strings and bc. The flute only plays the obbligato part in the aria 'Felicissima quest'alma'.

Handel started its composition in Venice in 1709, but only completed it the next year when he was Kapellmeister in Hanover. The first performance seems to have taken place in February 1711 in London, on 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".

At the start Apollo boasts about his power which even Cupid can't surpass. That turns out to be 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".

The cantata is divided into 19 sections, in the form of recitatives, arias and duets. With its scoring and length it is more like a mini-opera than a cantata. That is also the way it is performed here. Some recitatives follow the preceding aria without any interruption. That increases the dramatic flow. The performances of the two singers fit perfectly into this dramatic concept.

Tom Sol evocatively portrays the arrogance and rudeness of Apollo. He excels in the many coloraturas and makes an effective use of dynamic shading to communicate the text. He has no problems with the softer spots in the score, as he shows in the pathetic closing aria, 'Cara pianta'. Nicola Wemyss is fully convincing in the role of Dafne, who firmly resists Apollo's advances. I have heard her several times before and I have always liked her singing. So it remains here, but I would have preferred a little less vibrato. I noticed with satisfaction that the recitatives are sung with the right amount of rhythmic freedom.

One of the features of the interpretations of Jed Wentz and his ensemble is the often unconventional choice of tempi. Wentz has done extensive research in regard to the tempi of the 18th century. He has come to the conclusion that in many cases these were considerably faster than what is commonly practised today. Most arias are taken at a higher speed than in other recordings.

A striking difference with a recording for which I always have had a soft spot - with Judith Nelson and David Thomas as the soloists and directed by Nicholas McGegan - is the interpretation of Apollo's aria 'Come rosa in su la spina': "As the rose with its thorn quickly comes and quickly goes, so with sudden flight passes the flower of beauty". David Thomas sings it in a moderate tempo, in a rather gentle manner. The result is quite beautiful, but from a dramatic point of view the rather swift tempo which Sol and Wentz have chosen may be more appropriate. Moreover, gentleness and thoughtfulness are not exactly the qualities one associates with Apollo. Another feature of this performance is the addition of extensive ornamentation. The aria with flute obbligato mentioned above is a perfect example: Jed Wentz adds more ornaments than you will probably have ever heard before. The da capo is even introduced by a kind of improvisation.

Apollo e Dafne comes without an overture. In some performances a movement from a concerto grosso takes on this role. Here it is preceded by the music for The Alchymist. I can't tell whether this is meant as a kind of overture to the cantata; the liner-notes don't mention it. However, it is at least suggested by the very short interval between the last movement of the suite and the first recitative of the cantata.

Strictly speaking this is not a composition by Handel. It is rather a compilation by an unknown hand of pieces from the first opera Handel composed in Italy, Rodrigo. In January 1710 the play The Alchymist by Ben Jonson was performed in the Queen's Theatre at the Haymarket. The music of this suite was used as incidental music. It is unlikely Handel knew about this, let alone had given his permission. The scoring is the same as in the cantata, with the exception of the flute.

After a dignified overture in ABA form we hear a series of dances, such as sarabande, menuet and bourrée. Some tempi are quite unusual, especially in the first minuet (track 3) which is taken at a very high speed. The sarabande takes more time than usual because all the repeats are observed. The bourrée (track 5) is played twice, first by the oboes and the bassoon, then by the whole ensemble. Another feature of this ensemble's performances is the fluctuation of the tempo when that is considered appropriate. That is the case here in the next-to-last movement, here called 'air' (track 8) where the tempo regularly slows down and speeds up.

The music by Handel is presented here in a quite dramatic fashion. That seems to me absolutely right as the composer was a pure-bred man of the theatre. Apollo e Dafne receives one of the best performances I have heard, and the music for The Alchymist is given an exciting interpretation. The playing of Musica ad Rhenum is outstanding. If you have missed the first release, don't miss this reissue.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Musica ad Rhenum

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