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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Arias and Duets

[I] "Between Heaven and Earth"
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Topi Lehtipuu, tenora
Accademia Bizantina
Dir: Stefano Montanari

rec: Dec 2008, Bagnacavallo, Chiesa di San Girolamo
Naïve - OP 30484 (© 2009) (77'01")

[II] "Diva - Arias for Cuzzoni"
Simone Kermes, soprano
Lautten Compagney Berlin
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: August 2 -5, 2008, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Berlin Classics - 0016422BC (© 2009) (69'48")

[III] Arias and Duets
Sandrine Piau, sopranob; Sara Mingardo, contraltoc
Concerto Italiano
Dir: Rinaldo Alessandrini

rec: [n.d.], Rome, Institut Pontifical de Musique Sacrée
Naïve - OP 30483 (© 2009) (72'30")

[I] Alexander Balus (HWV 65): O take me from this hateful light (aria); Forgive, O queena - Calm thou my soul - Convey me to some peaceful shore (rec, accomp & aria); Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,2 (HWV 313): largo; Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV 46a): Pure del cielo - Tu del Ciel ministro eletto (rec & aria); Joseph and his brethren (HWV 59): Art thou not Zaphnath? - Prophetic raptures sweel my breast (rec & aria); L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (HWV 55): First and chief on golden wings - Sweet bird (rec & aria); As steals the morn upon the night (duet)a; La Resurrezione (HWV 47): Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno (aria); Messiah (HWV 56): Rejoice greatly (aria); Ode for St Cecilia's Day (HWV 76): What passion cannot Music raise and quell (aria); Samson (HWV 57): Let the bright seraphims (aria); Solomon (HWV 67): symphony (The arrival of the Queen of Sheba); Theodora (HWV 68): largo; O Thou bright Sun - With darkness deep as is my woe (rec & aria)
[II] Admeto (HWV 22): Io ti bacio; Alessandro (HWV 21): No, più soffrir non voglio; Flavio (HWV 16): Amante stravagante; Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17): V'adoro pupille; Piangerò; Se pietà di me non senti; Riccardo Primo (HWV 23): Morte vieni; Rodelinda (HWV 19, 1st version): Ombre piante; Ahi perché, giusto ciel; Scipione (HWV 20): Scoglio d'immota fronte; Siroe (HWV 24): Or mi perdo di speranza; Mi lagnerò tacenda; Torrente cresciuto; Tolomeo (HWV 25): Fonti amiche
[III] Alessandro (HWV 21): overture; Ah, Lisaura tradita - No, più soffrir non voglio (rec & aria)b; Fra gli uomini - Da un breve riposo (rec & aria)c; Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11): D'un sventurato amante - Pena tiranna (rec & aria)c; Ezio (HWV 29): Misera, dove son! - Ah! Non son io che parlo (rec & aria)b; Flavio (HWV 16): Oh Numi! - Mà chi punir desio (rec & aria)b; Orlando (HWV 31): Più non fuggir potrai - Finchè prendi ancora il sangue (rec & duet)bc; Ottone (HWV 15): Frena, crudel - A' teneri affetti (rec & duet)bc; Poro (HWV 28): overture; Caro! Dolce! Amico amplesso (duet)bc; Radamisto (HWV 12a): Oh, di per me felice - Se teco vive il cor (rec & duet)bc; Rinaldo (HWV 7a): Adorato mio sposo - Scherzano sul tuo volto (rec & duet)bc; Tamerlano (HWV 18): Se Asteria mi tradisce - Più di una tigre altero (rec & aria)c; Vivo in te (duet)bc

The three discs to be reviewed here have something in common, apart from the fact that they contain extracts from large-scale vocal works by Handel. Each of them is the result of personal choices by the singers. Simone Kermes wanted to present a bouquet of arias which showed the multifaced character of Handel's creations for the theatre, and out came a programme of arias which Handel originally wrote for the famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Sandrine Piau wanted to explore the specific character of Handel's arias for soprano, on the one hand angelic, on the other hand expressing human suffering. The most down-to-earth reason to record a Handel recital is given in the booklet of the recording of arias and duets by Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo: "Let's enjoy ourselves!".

Fortunately in all three recordings we hear some less familiar items. Yes, there are some well-known pieces, in particular in Sandrine Piau's solo recording. Among them are 'Rejoice greatly' from Messiah, 'Sweet bird' from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and 'Let the bright seraphims' from Samson. But there are also many far lesser-known arias - and duets - which deserve to be better known, and often are taken from compositions which for some reason seem not get much attention, like the oratorio Alexander Balus or operas as Siroe and Tolomeo.

For a disc with vocal music by Handel to be really satisfying much is asked from the participants, first and foremost from the singers, of course, but also from the instrumental ensemble. On the one hand the performances have to be expressive, communicating the content of the texts and the way Handel has translated them into music, as well as doing justice to the characters who sing the various arias. The latter is the most difficult to realise as the arias are cut off from their original context. In the disc of arias and duets by Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo this is a little compensated by including the recitatives which precede the arias or duets. But Handel's music is also technically demanding, as many of his arias are quite virtuosic. And lastly there is the matter of style, regarding issues like ornamentation and cadenzas. In my experience this aspect is most problematic. Too often singers try to impress their audiences with virtuosic singing at the cost of what the aesthetics of the time allow. In various ways these three discs attest that, in particular the two solo recitals.

Let's start with Sandrine Piau. She has a beautiful voice which is well suited to the music of Handel. And her solo recital proves that since most performances are really good in that she sings with great expression and technical assurance. Highlights are the arias 'With darkness deep as in my woe' from Theodora and 'Convey me to some peaceful shore' from Alexander Balus. The duet 'As steals upon the morn' from L'Allegro, il Pensoroso ed il Moderato is also beautifully sung, with a good balance between Sandrine Piau and Topi Lehtipuu, whose contribution fits well into the interpretations on this disc.

But unfortunately too many items are stylistically debatable. The main issue is the ornamentation and the performance of cadenzas which tend to be over the top more often than not. Adding ornamentation to a dacapo is absolutely necessary, but not without limitation. Many ornaments are dubious and sometimes added seemingly at random, without much logic. The elaborate coloraturas on the word "swell" in the aria 'Prophetic raptures swell my breast' from Joseph and his brethren is far over the top.

Not seldom Handel's composition is virtually rewritten in the dacapo. I don't think this is what composers of Handel's time had in mind. The original lines should at least be recognizable to a considerable extent rather than disappear through the 'creativity' of the interpreters. 'Rejoice greatly' is just one example. The very first item, 'Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno' from La Resurrezione, immediately reveals what is wrong in this respect. This aria is also performed at breakneck speed which results in the text being hardly understandable.

The cadenzas are another issue on this disc. The aria 'What passion cannot Music raise' from the Ode for St Cecilia's Day has a wonderful obbligato part for the cello, which is excellently performed by Marco Frezzato, but the cadenza at the end lasts more than one minute which is simply absurd. I don't understand the reasoning behind this. The performers probably try to underline the dramatic character of Handel's music, but the effect is the opposite. Strangely enough the performance of the recitative 'O Thou bright sun' from Theodora is rhythmically too rigid and as a result lacks drama.

In between the vocal items the orchestra plays several instrumental pieces which mostly have nothing to do with the vocal items. The largo from Theodora is well chosen as it prepares for the following scene from Alexander Balus, but breaking up the extracts from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato by the 'symphony' from Solomon - better known as 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' - is rather odd. The performance is unsatisfying as the exaggerated accents give the impression of this symphony being taken from a very dramatic scene - which it is not.
It is a shame the performers haven't understood yet that often less is more.

Simone Kermes has made quite a name for herself over the last five years or so. She is generally considered a rather extraverted personality who feels most at home in opera. That certainly shows at her disc but the choice of arias may come as a surprise as Francesca Cuzzoni's style of singing was "'innocent and affecting', and enhanced by 'tender and touching expression'", as David Vickers writes in the booklet.

Having listened to this disc I have to say that the more intimate arias come off best. In the more extraverted stuff Ms Kermes tends to go overboard, and there we note the same issues I have referred to in my description of Sandrine Piau's solo recording. In some arias the ornamentation is overdone, and right in the first item the cadenza is exaggerated. In the dacapos too much freedom is taken, for instance in the last aria on the programme, 'Io ti bacio' from Admeto, where in the dacapo the basso continuo part is largely simply cut off.

But there are many items which are just brilliantly sung, with much expression and a fine sense of the mood of the protagonist. Two of the arias from Giulio Cesare, 'Piangerò' and 'Se pietà di me non senti', are wonderfully sung. Both the vocal and the instrumental parts are interpreted with expression and subtlety, and Simone Kermes sings the top notes with impressive ease. Another highlight is 'Ahi perché, giusto ciel' from Rodelinda. It is one of the two arias from this opera in the programme, both of which are recorded here for the first time, as they were part of the first version of this opera, but were left out in the actual performance.

This alone makes this disc a must-have for Handel aficionados, but the rest of the programme also contains arias from lesser-known operas, like Siroe and Tolomeo. As the singing of Simone Kermes is mostly very good and the playing of the orchestra helps to create a theatrical atmosphere this disc can be recommended both to those who know Handel's operas very well as to those who would like to know more of them.

Lastly a disc with arias and duets. Before this disc was recorded Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo had hardly ever worked together, but when they met they discovered a strong musical congeniality. This raised the idea of making a disc together, and when they talked about the repertoire they decided to do some Handel. They asked Rinaldo Alessandrini to be the captain of the undertaking, and that was a very good decision.

With Alessandrini they got his ensemble Concerto Italiano, which is one of the best in the business, and is not infected with the virus of trying to do too much and looking for superficial effects. Alessandrini is more interested in Affekt than effect, and that shows on this disc. He also has kept the singers, and in particular Sandrine Piau I'm inclined to think, with their feet firmly on the ground. It can't be a coincidence that the issues I noted in regard to Ms Piau's solo recording are largely - although not completely - absent here.

The programme has been well put together, largely avoiding the obvious. This is not a disc with evergreens, but rather with gems from Handel's oeuvre some of which are not that well known. In the duets the balance between the voices is largely satisfying, although the soprano has naturally a slight preponderance, in particular as Piau has a very clear voice whereas Sara Mingardo has a dark rather soft-edged voice. But the singers blend mostly really well, and the duets are very beautifully done.

The arias are also mostly very good, with 'Pena tiranna' from Amadigi di Gaula marvellously sung by Sara Mingardo, and Sandrine Piau singing 'No, più soffrir non voglio' from Alessandro with great expression. Ms Piau largely resists the temptation to rewrite the dacapos. In 'Mà chi punir desio' from Flavio she shows much more restraint than in her solo recording. Only in 'Ah! Non son io che parlo' from Ezio she is allowed to sing an exaggerated cadenza. The Concerto Italiano is in my view the best of the three orchestras on these discs. The playing is simply gorgeous, with a beautiful sound and good contrasts, for instance between the slow and fast sections of the two overtures.

Most discs with Handel recitals are devoted to solo arias. But Handel's duets belong to the most expressive and moving parts of his oeuvre, and that makes this disc a winner beforehand. The performances only add to the attraction of this recording.

Despite all reservations I have expressed in this review I think these discs are good additions to the already large Handel discography. They also show that there is still much to discover in his oeuvre as we are still waiting for good recordings of a number of operas and oratorios.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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