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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Italian cantatas

[I] "La Lucrezia - Italian Cantatas"
Sonia Prina, contralto
La Sfera Armoniosa
Dir: Mike Fentross

rec: Nov 25 - 27, 2008, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Ludi Musici - LM 004 (© 2009) (67'26")

[II] "Amore X Amore"
Xavier Sabata, altoa
Forma Antiqva
Dir: Aarón Zapico

rec: May 2009, Girona (Spain), Fundació Auditori Palau de Congressos (Sala de Cambra)
Winter & Winter - 910 162-2 (© 2009) (65'21")

[I] Dolc'è pur d'amor l'affanno (HWV 109a); Fra pensieri quel pensiero (HWV 115); La Lucrezia (HWV 145); Qualor credele (HWV 151); Siete rose rugiadose (HWV 162); Stanco di più soffrire (HWV 167a)
[II] Clori, degli occhi miei (HWV 91a)a; Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 6,4 (HWV 294): andante allegro (arr for harpsichord, viola da gamba, guitar, theorbo and archlute); Dolc'è pur d'amor l'affanno (HWV 109a)a; Ho fuggito (HWV 118)a; Lungi da me, pensier tiranno! (HWV 125b)a; Nel dolce tempo (HWV 135b)a; Sonata for violin and bc in d minor (HWV 359a) (arr for viola da gamba and bc); Suite for harpsichord in g minor (HWV 432) (arr for theorbo, archlute and guitar)

[I] Richte van der Meer, cello; Paulina van Laarhoven, viola da gamba, lirone; Mike Fentross, lute, guitar; Menno van Delft, harpsichord, organ
[II] Rami Alqhai, viola da gamba; Pablo Zapico, archlute, guitar; Daniel Zapico, theorbo, tiorbino; Enrike Solinís, guitar, theorbo, archlute; Aarón Zapico, harpsichord

When Handel arrived in Italy he became acquainted with several musical genres which were particularly popular there, the chamber cantata, the oratorio and the serenata. Soon he started to compose his own works in those genres. These works were substantial and he would use them - or material from them - for compositions he should write in his English period.

Handel composed a large number of cantatas, usually - as was the tradition in Italy - for soprano with basso continuo. A number of cantatas were later reworked for alto, and that was mainly due to Elizabeth Legh, one of his great admirers in England who also became his pupil. These cantatas are often sung by male altos, but in the booklet of this recording Dinko Fabris claims they are first recorded here with a female alto. He suggests all cantatas - with the exception of La Lucrezia - were adapted by Handel to suit Elizabeth Legh's voice. That includes Siete rose rugiadose, although he also states that in this cantata the ornamentation is used which Handel wrote down for a performance of the alto castrato Valentino Urbani. This seems rather contradictory.
I am a little surprised to learn that Mike Fentross has written out the ornamentation of all other cantatas. Aren't ornaments supposed to be improvised? In the case of a recording one may at least expect the singer to prepare his or her own ornamentation, and I certainly would expect that from a seasoned opera singer like Sonia Prina. In general the ornamentation is tasteful, and Mike Fentross has not followed the modern practice of virtually rewriting the dacapos. Still I think the ornamentation is a little too abundant.

The same is true for the scoring of the basso continuo. Elizabeth Legh was practicing to sing the cantatas while accompanying herself on the harpsichord. Making so much of using the same type of voice hadn't it had some logic to follow this practice as well? I am not suggesting Ms Prina should accompany herself. But if a single harpsichord was considered enough to accompany the voice in chamber cantatas, then why are stringed and plucked instruments added like in this recording? In particular the change of scoring of the basso continuo part within a cantata is questionable and so is the use of an organ in this kind of repertoire. Even more debatable is the participation of the lirone in La Lucrezia. From what I understand this instrument had passed into disuse around 1700, and it seems rather odd to use it in a cantata by Handel. The liner notes don't explain why an 'aria' for lute solo is preceding the first recitative of Stanco di più soffrire.

As one may gather from these remarks this disc raises a number of questions. But that doesn't diminish my positive assessment of the performances. Sonia Prina has a beautiful voice and a great feeling for the dramatic elements in Handel's cantatas. The arias of this category come off best, and that certainly includes La Lucrezia. It doesn't surprise then that the recitatives are also very well sung, with the appropriate rhythmic freedom and great attention to the text. The more lyrical or introverted arias are not always totally convincing. The opening aria of Dolc'è pur d'amor, for instance, is too slow in my view, and that makes it a bit too heavy-handed. As a result the ornaments get too much weight. My reservations in regard to the scoring of the basso continuo notwithstanding its realisation is tasteful and reflects the character of the various pieces quite well. So all in all I certainly recommend this disc.

Rather tasteless is the second disc. The male alto Xavier Sabata has a quite nice voice, and he sings pretty well. He also performs the recitatives appropriately, but in the arias there are some exaggerations in regard to ornamentation. It is mainly the performances of the instrumental ensemble which are very annoying. The basso continuo part is variously scored, like in the previous recording. But here the performers go a step further by changing the scoring within a single aria or recitative. I fail to see the reasoning behind this. That is especially the case in the first aria of Dolc'è pur d'amor, where the A section is first performed with harpsichord and viola da gamba, but the dacapo with plucked instruments only. In the aria 'Quel bel rio' from Clori, degli occhi miei the harpsichord is far too loud, and as a result some low notes of Xavier Sabata are hardly audible.

The instrumental pieces are all arrangements. I have no objection to arrangements as long as they are historically plausible and musically tasteful. The performance of the violin part of a sonata on the viola da gamba seems quite plausible to me. After all, Handel himself has composed a sonata for this instrument, and he himself reworked many sonatas for other instruments. But the way it is played is just awful. It is very rigid and straightforward, without any subtlety, and apparently the performers have never heard about articulation and phrasing. The performance of the closing movement of the organ concerto - better known as harp concerto - is completely off the mark. The loud and aggressive playing and the ridiculously fast tempo completely destroy the lyricism of this movement. And talking about plausibility: I don't think a performance of a movement from a harpsichord suite on three plucked instruments can be considered plausible.

In addition to this misery the acoustics are unpleasantly dry and the booklet contains the lyrics with an English translation but no liner notes whatsoever. Those who really want to hear Xavier Sabata sing need a large amount of tolerance.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Sonia Prina
La Sfera Armoniosa
Xavier Sabata
Forma Antiqva

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