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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Il caro Sassone - Handel in Italy"

Lucy Crowe, sopranoa
The English Concert
Dir: Harry Bicket

rec: August 2010, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 907559 ( 2011) (74'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Alpestre monte, cantata (HWV 81)a; Aminta e Fillide, cantata a 2 (HWV 83) (Se vago rio, aria)a; Armida abbandonata, cantata (HWV 105)a; Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, cantata a 3 (HWV 96) (Tirsi, mio caro - Barbaro, tu non credi, rec & aria)a; Delirio amoroso, cantata (HWV 99) (Sonata); Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, oratorio (HWV 46a) (Lascia la spina, aria)a; La Resurrezione, oratorio (HWV 47) (Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno, aria)a; Salve Regina, motet (HWV 241)a; Sonata a 5 in B flat (HWV 288) (andante); Tu fedel? tu costante?, cantata (HWV 171) (Sonata)

When Handel arrived in Italy in 1706 it didn't take long before he made quite an impression on Italian audiences. It earned him the nickname il caro Sassone, the dear Saxon. His first activities were as a player of the keyboard, in particular the organ. But soon he also was asked to compose vocal music, for instance for the musical entertainments which were organized by the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli in Rome. The most famous piece which was performed at Ruspoli's palace was La Resurrezione on Easter Sunday of 1708. For this occasion an unusually large orchestra was put together, with none other than Arcangelo Corelli as its leader.

This is one of the few sacred pieces which is included on this disc which presents a sampling of works Handel composed during his stay in Italy. From La Resurrezione we hear the first aria, 'Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno', sung by the angel. The other sacred piece is Salve Regina, which was performed on Trinity Sunday of 1707 in the church of San Sebastiano, nearby Marchese Ruspoli's country estate Vignanello. In his liner-notes David Vickers calls this piece a "poignant setting" of "intimate penitence". Its intimacy is reflected by the scoring of two violins, organ obbligato (in the aria 'Eia ergo, avvocata nostra') and bc. The English Concert's performance with more than one instrument per part is at odds with its intimate character.

This habit is equally questionable in two of the secular cantatas on the programme. The disc opens with the cantata Armida abbandonata, for solo voice, two violins and bc. This belongs to the category of the chamber cantata which was usually performed with one instrument per part. The fact that Handel omits a part for the viola also points into that direction. Alpestre monte has the same scoring, and again we hear all the violins of the orchestra. Then why, one is inclined to ask, is the sonata which introduces the cantata Tu fedel? tu costante? performed with two violins and bc, according to Handel's indication? It is one of the debatable aspects of this disc. Another is the decision to make this recording in a church. The acoustic is too spatial for the repertoire which is performed here.

Although Lucy Crowe doesn't confine herself to early music, she has the perfect voice for baroque repertoire. She has a very beautiful voice, and sings with great sensitivity. Fortunately she hasn't fallen victim to the virus which causes singers to use incessant vibrato. That said, I am not completely satisfied with her performances. The more intimate pieces come off best, like Salve Regina, even though the ornamentation on "eia" in the dacapo of the aria 'Eia ergo' is questionable. One of the highlights is the aria from La Resurrezione. The lyrical cantata Alpestre monte and the aria 'Se vago rio' from Aminta e Fillide are beautifully sung. But Lucy Crowe is far less convincing in the more dramatic stuff.

It seems her voice is just too light to really explore the drama in Armida abbandonata. Her performance is dynamically too flat and lacks contrast. The aria 'Barbaro, tu non credi' from Clori, Tirsi e Fileno is also not dramatic enough. The extended ornamentation on "Barbaro" in the dacapo doesn't make that any better, and it is stylistically questionable.

Even if her singing would have been more theatrical, the English Concert would have undermined the overall impression of this disc. I have not been impressed with this orchestra since Harry Bicket has become its artistic director. The performances are generally on the bland side, with too little dynamic contrast, an under-par articulation and too little respect for the hierarchy of the notes. All these features are also present here. The rhythms of the arias and the instrumental pieces are also underexposed. The violin solo in the accompanied recitative which opens Armida abbandonata is too restrained, and the organ solo in Salve Regina is not very engaging.

This disc is certainly nice to listen to, but that is not enough. Handel's music is more engaging and theatrical than these performances suggest.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

Lucy Crowe
The English Concert

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