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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Cantatas & duets

[I] "'Tu fedel? Tu costante?' HWV 171a and other Italian cantatas"
Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, sopranoa; Klaus Mertens, bassb
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Ton Koopman
rec: April 2016, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Challenge Classics - CC72265 (© 2016) (64'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Aure soavi, e liete, cantata (HWV 84)a; Cuopre tal volta il cielo, cantata (HWV 98)b; Dalla guerra amorosa, cantata (HWV 102a)b; Giù nei Tartarei regni, duet (HWV 187)ab; Pensieri notturni di Filli (Nel dolce dell'oblio), cantata (HWV 134)a; Tacete, ohimè, tacete, duet (HWV 196)abab; Tu fedel? Tu costante?, cantata (first version) (HWV 171a)a

Reine Marie Verhagen, recorder; Antoine Torunczyk, oboe; Catherine Manson, Joseph Tan, John Wilson Meyer, Anna Eunjung Ryu, Chiara Zanisi, David Rabinovich, Marc Cooper, Ann Roux, Liesbeth Nijs, violin; Werner Matzke, Esmé de Vries, cello; Michele Zeoli, double bass; Wouter Verschuren, bassoon; Mike Fentross, theorbo; Ton Koopman, harpsichord

[II] "Duetti e Terzetti italiani"
Roberta Invernizzia, Silvia Frigatob, soprano; Krystian Adam, tenorc; Thomas Bauer, bassd
La Risonanza
Dir: Fabio Bonizzoni
rec: June 24 - 27, 2014, Thiérache, Abbaye de Saint-Michel
Glossa - GCD 921517 (© 2015) (61'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/D; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Amor gioie mi porge, duet (HWV 180)ab; Caro autor di mia doglia, duet (HWV 182)ac; Che vai pensando, duet (HWV 184)bd; Giù nei Tartarei regni, duet (HWV 187)ad; Quando in calma ride il mare, duet (HWV 191)ad; Quel fior che l'alba ride, trio (HWV 200)abd; Se tu non lasci amore, trio (HWV 201)abd; Tacete, ohimè, tacete, duet (HWV 196)bd; Va, speme infida, duet (HWV 199)ab

Caterina Del'Agnello, cello; Evangelina Mascardi, theorbo; Fabio Bonizzoni, harpsichord


One of the notable features of George Frideric Handel was his habit to recycle compositions he wrote in the past. In the operas, oratorios as well as in the instrumental music he composed in England he regularly turned to what he had already written, often compositions which date from his years in Italy. He was still very young when he settled there and it was his aim to listen and study. But it didn't take long before he started to compose, often at the request of patrons who would play an important part in his years in Italy, such as the Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili. He contributed to almost any genre: opera, oratorio, serenata, sacred music as well as chamber cantatas and duets. The latter two categories are the subject of the two discs to be reviewed here.

In the course of his career Ton Koopman has not given much attention to Handel. He recorded two of his main oratorios, Messiah and Le Resurrezione, the organ concertos and some chamber music, but he stayed away from Handel's operas and his only previous recording of chamber cantatas was very early in his career, with the soprano Marjanne Kweksilber. The main raison d'être of the present disc is the fact that in his large library a hitherto unknown version of Handel's cantata Tu fedel? Tu costante? was discovered. It has been recognized as an authentic piece from Handel's pen and has been published last year as part of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe. In his liner-notes John H. Roberts, who authenticated the piece, writes that the version recorded here is the first, and preceded the one which was known and included as HWV 171 in the catalogue of Handel's works. The latter dates from 1707 and Roberts assumes that the first version may have been written in Florence or Venice prior to Handel's arrival in Rome in late 1706. "Handel appears to have reset the text as extensively as he did because he then possessed no complete score of the first version. The autograph of HWV 171 suggests that he started copying out the cantata in northern Italy before parting with his original manuscript but for some reason broke off at the beginning of the second recitative. When he wanted to perform the cantata he was therefore obliged to compose most of it anew". This explains why the first aria is practically identical in both versions. There are two differences: in the first version the two violins are joined by an oboe and it comes without the introductory sonata of the second version. But the remaining parts are completely new and, as Roberts explains, "[in] the process [Handel] effectively reinterpreted the text".

This version of the cantata is part of a manuscript apparently bound around 1770 for a certain Serafino Agostini about whom nothing is known. The same collection includes Aure soave, e liete (HWV 84) which also dates from 1707. It is a relatively short cantata for soprano and bc with two pairs of recitative and aria. It is about love, of course, but despite the dark streaks in the first aria it is not as gloomy as some other cantatas are. Pensieri notturni di Filli, better known as Nel dolce dell'oblio, is one of Handel's most popular cantatas, partly thanks to the nice part for an obbligato recorder. Yetzabel Arias Fernandez turns out to be an excellent interpreter who has the right temperament for this kind of repertoire. She sings the arias very well, with tasteful ornamentation, without ever going overboard. I am especially impressed by the way she deals with the recitatives. Their dramatic character is explored to the full and she rightly emphasized the natural rhythm of the text.

The two remaining cantatas are remarkable pieces in that they are scored for bass. In a time when soprano and alto voices completely dominated the music scene, especially in the realm of secular music, cantatas for a lower voice were rare. If an opera included roles for a tenor or a bass their arias were seldom technically demanding or particularly virtuosic. In the oeuvre of the main composers of chamber cantatas, such as Alessandro Scarlatti, one can hardly find anything specifically scored for bass. From that one may conclude that Handel must have had a special reason to compose them. In the case of Cuopre tal volta il cielo (HWV 98) it is known that it was intended for Antonio Manna, who also sang the role of Polifemo in the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, written for performance in Naples. This cantata requires a wide tessitura. The leaps in the vocal part are used to depict a storm at sea. Dalla guerra amorosa is less extreme in regard to the vocal range. The text uses a common metaphor for love: 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".

Klaus Mertens is mainly known as a singer of German sacred music, although his repertoire is much wider. He does very well in these cantatas which are available in other recordings. However, Mertens' performances are the most satisfying I have heard so far and both the expressive and dramatic features are convincingly conveyed.

One could argue that Handel's duets in his operas and oratorios are among the most moving music he has ever written. His skills in this department already manifest themselves in the duets he composed during his Italian sojourn. Obviously he was not the first to write duets. Many operas and oratorios of the 17th century include arias for two voices, but these were mostly rather short and were seldom given special weight. The most notable exception - and one of the most famous duets in music history - is the one which closes Monteverdi's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea, 'Pur ti miro', which may not be from the composer's own pen. In the second half of the 17th century it was Agostino Steffani who composed a large number of duets which found a wide dissemination. Handel must certainly have known them. "Some influence of Steffani is apparent in the fluidly melodious vocal lines, woven together with great care and with the musical points shared equally between the voices", Anthony Hicks writes in the article on Handel in New Grove.

Fabio Bonizzoni, who in recent years has recorded Handel's Italian cantatas, selected nine duets and trios from the composer's output, all written in Italy. It is notable that in six of them - four duets and two trios - one of the parts is for bass, whereas in the later pieces, written in either Hanover (1710-1712) or in England (1720, 1740-1745), the duets are either for two sopranos or for soprano and alto. Duets are not dramatic in comparison to opera: the two voices don't represent different characters which become involved in a dialogue. "[Instead] it has a dialogue supporting the notion of distinct characters - the singers do not act from an individual perspective, but cooperate in the musical development around the same text. A vocal virtuosity, an abundant use of imitative procedures, an insistence on expressivity and a high level of harmonic refinement all entail the chamber duet being a particularly select form, not without certain pedagogic and erudite elements", Stefano Russomanno writes in the liner-notes to the Glossa disc.

Handel's duets and trios are different in the way the various parts and their relationships are treated. Quel fior che all'alba ride is dominated by counterpoint. The opening section is an ingenious fabric of the three vocal lines. Tacete, ohimè, tacete opens with a dacapo aria of superior expression, comparable with some of the best duets from the oratorios and operas, partly through an effective use of harmony. The transition to the closing section is abrupt and dramatic. In Quando in calma ride il mare the basso continuo plays a major part in the depiction of the sea, especially in the opening aria: "When the sea is sparkling in a dead calm, the storms are at their closest". Caro autor di mia doglia has a pastoral character; it opens with a reference to the pain and suffering of the lover but ends with a song about the "happy joy of being in love". It exists in three different versions; here we get the first, for soprano and tenor, which is the only duet for this scoring.

Roberta Invernizzi and Silvia Frigato are seasoned performers of this kind of repertoire. That shows as their performances are stylish and idiomatic, although Invernizzi sometimes tends to use too much vibrato. I haven't heard Thomas Bauer in baroque operas or Italian cantatas before; he certainly has the right temperament for it and he does well here. However, in my reviews of his recordings of cantatas by Bach I critisized his incessant vibrato and that is clearly noticeable here as well. It does damage the duets and trios in which he is involved. From that perspective I prefer the combination of Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and Klaus Mertens in the two duets Ton Koopman included in his recording. Mertens may not be as natural in this kind of repertoire as he is in sacred music, he is really convincing here and from an angle of style he is hard to beat.

Koopman's recording is very important because of the repertoire: one first recording and some other pieces which are not that well-known, in overall very fine performances. The only reservation I have is the instrumental line-up. Considering that the cantatas are written for a performance in relative intimate surroundings and omit viola parts strongly suggests a performance with one instrument per part. With up to nine violins and two cellos his ensemble seems too large. Bonizzoni's disc is certainly enjoyable but I have some problems with Bauer's contribution and Invernizzi's singing at some stages. However, Handelians should add both discs to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Krystian Adam
Yetzabel Arias Fernandez
Klaus Mertens
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
La Risonanza

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