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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Handel in Italy

[I] "Handel in Italy Vol. 1"
Mary Bevana, Sophie Bevanb, soprano; Benjamin Bevan, bassc
London Early Opera
Dir: Bridget Cunningham
rec: Jan 14 - 16, 2013, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill
Signum Classics - SIGCD423 (© 2015) (43'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Agrippina (HWV 6) (Bel piacere)a; Cuopre tal volta il cielo (HWV 98)c; Gloria (HWV deest)b; Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV 46a) (Un pensiero nemico di pace)a; Rodrigo (HWV 5) (overture: passacaille); Sonata in G (HWV 579)d

Belinda Paul, Ann Allan, oboe; Adrian Butterfield, Kirra Thomas, Eleanor Harrison, Nicolette Moonen, Philip Yeeles, Felicity Broome-Skelton, violin; Alexis Bennet, Nichola Blakey, viola; Jennifer Bullock, Emily Ashton, cello; Zoe Shevlin, bassoon; Kate Aldridge, double bass; Alex McCartney, theorbo; Bridget Cunningham, harpsichord (solod); Richard Vendome, organ

[II] "Handel"
Julia Lezhneva, soprano
Il Giardino Armonico
Dir: Giovanni Antonini
rec: Jan 2 - 4 & 6 - 10, 2015, Cremona, Museo del Violino Antonio Stradivari (Giovanni Arvedi Auditorium)
Decca - 478 6766 (© 2015) (69'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Agrippina (HWV 6) (sinfonia; Pensieri, voi mi tormentate); Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122) (Felicissima quest'alma); Dixit Dominus (HWV 232) (Tecum principium); Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV 46a) (Come nembo che fugge con vento; Lascia la spina; Pure del cielo intelligenze eterne - Tu del ciel ministro eletto; Un pensiero nemico di pace); La Resurrezione (HWV 47) (Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno); Rodrigo (HWV 5) (Per dar pregio all'amor mio); Salve Regina (HWV 241)

Herbert Walser, Bernhard Lampert, trumpet; Giovanni Antonini, transverse flute; Thomas Meraner, Federica Inzoli, oboe; Alberto Guerra, bassoon; Elisa Citterio, Dmitry Sinkovsky, Fabrizio Haim Cipriani, Liana Mosca, Fabio Ravasi, Marco Bianchi, Francesco Colletti, Maria Cristina Vasi, violin; Gianni De Rosa, Alice Bisanti, viola; Marcello Scandelli, Elena Russo, cello; Giancarlo De Frenza, double bass; Michele Pasotti, theorbo; Riccardo Doni, harpsichord

As his many operas, oratorios and cantatas show George Frideric Handel was a theatrical composer by nature. His decision to travel to Italy, the country where musical theatre was born, was only a logical step in his career. His Italian sojourn not only played a key role in his development as a composer, it also laid the foundation for his repute as one of the leading composers of his time. The two discs to be reviewed here document in different ways his activities during his years in Italy.

Handel's main interest was opera. He had already written two operas in Hamburg, for the Oper am Gänsemarkt. Once in Italy he must have wanted to hear what was written and performed at the time. But it didn't take long before he was commissioned with the composition of operas himself. In 1707 Rodrigo was performed in Florence. Bridget Cunningham writes that it is not known who commissioned it but George Loomis, in his liner-notes to Julia Lezhneva's disc, states that it was "almost certainly" Ferdinando de Medici. It was received very well and must immediately have brought Handel the reputation of being a first-class opera composer. Per dar pregio is an aria of Esilena from the first act (Lezhneva); London Early Opera plays the passacaille from the overture.

It is known for certain what was the reason for Handel to compose Agrippina. It was the result of a commission of the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice where it was first performed in December 1709 with Margherita Durastanti in the title role. She was to become one of Handel's favourite singers who often participated in opera performances in London. Agrippina was a resounding success: no fewer than 27 performances took place. Il Giardino Armonico plays the sinfonia from this opera, Mary Bevan (London Early Opera) sings Bel piacere, an aria of Poppea from act 3.

The genre of the chamber cantata was close to opera. One could call it a pocket-size opera: its content was mostly dramatic, but not in the form of a dialogue as it was usually scored for a soloist who represents one particular person expressing his feelings. Such pieces were performed during the meetings of arcadian academies which had been founded across Italy since the late 17th century. The performances were unstaged and without costumes. The solo parts were mostly scored for soprano or alto; cantatas for lower voices were rare. Handel's oeuvre includes four cantatas for bass. Two of them, Cuopre tal volta il cielo, performed by London Early Opera, and Nell'Africane selve were likely written for Domenico Antonio Manna, who was probably also the interpreter of the role of Polyphemus in Handel's serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. One of the features of his voice was its wide range and that is explored in these two cantatas. The singer has to be able to sing in the range of the baritone, but also to hit notes at the bottom of the bass range.

Apollo e Dafne or La terra è liberata is an example of a cantata which is a dialogue between two characters; it is scored for soprano and bass and an orchestra of transverse flute, two oboes, bassoon, strings and bc. Handel completed the composition in 1710 when he was in Hanover but the inclusion of one of its arias can be justified by the fact that Handel started to compose it during his sojourn in Italy. Felicissima quest'alma is an aria of Daphne with an obbligato part for transverse flute.

There was another genre to which Handel contributed for the first time: the oratorio. This was a very important genre and often used as a substitute for opera, especially in Rome, where the ecclesiastical authorities were very critical about opera performances. In the first decade of the 18th century these were even entirely forbidden in Rome. Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was Handel's first Italian oratorio and was performed in Rome in 1707. Although it is ranked among the oratorios it is strictly speaking not a sacred work but a morality play, in the tradition of Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo. The key character is Bellezza (Beauty) who is encouraged to choose the path of worldly things by Piacere (Pleasure), whereas the opposing characters are Disinganno (Insight) and Tempo (Time). In this particular work the central question is what real beauty is: something of this world, which is doomed to pass by (represented by Piacere), or (moral) truth which lasts eternally. Insight and Time try to convince Beauty of the latter. In the end they win the argument as Beauty sees they are right. Julia Lezhneva sings four arias from this work. Come nembo is an aria of Piacere from Part 2, the other three belong to the role of Bellezza. Lascia la spina (Part 2) was later reused in Rinaldo as Lascia ch'io pianga. The last aria from this oratorio - which also closes Lezhneva's recording - is Tu del Ciel ministro eletto which includes a brilliant obbligato violin part. As the leader of the orchestra in the performance was nobody else than the great Arcangelo Corelli one may assume that Handel included this part to give him the opportunity to shine. Un pensiero nemico is from Part 1 and is included in both recordings.

Corelli was also the leader of the orchestra in the performance of La Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo on 8 April 1708 in the palace of Francesco Maria Ruspoli to whom both oratorios were dedicated. A sign of Handel's high reputation at the time was the fact that Ruspoli paid for 1,500 librettos which shows how much attendants were expected on the two consecutive days the performances would take place (Easter Sunday and Monday). Also unusual was the size of the orchestra Handel had at his disposal: 45 instruments, including 21 violins. Julia Lezhneva sings Disserratevi, o porte d'Averno, the aria of the angel which opens the work and which includes two trumpet parts. It is almost needless to say that Il Giardino Armonico is much smaller than Handel's orchestra.

La Resurrezione was a sacred work connected to a specific feast of the ecclesiastical year but not liturgical. Whether Handel's other sacred works written in Italy were meant for liturgical performance is hard to say. The Salve Regina was part of the liturgy but Handel composed his setting for performance in the Ruspoli Castle in Vignanello. The solo part was probably sung by Margherita Durastanti; the second section includes an obbligato part for organ which was almost certainly played by Handel himself. That his setting of Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109/110) was intended for liturgical performance is much more likely. It is a highly dramatic piece from which Julia Lezhneva sings the only solo section. The Gloria is a fixed part of the Mass; it was quite common to compose separate Mass sections. This setting was known for a long time but only in 2001 it was identified as a composition by Handel. However, there is no concluding evidence for his authorship, although the arguments in favour are pretty strong.

While in Italy Handel gained a reputation as a composer of vocal music. He was already famous for his skills on the keyboard, especially the organ. His keyboard works are very difficult to date. Bridget Cunningham has included the Sonata in G but it is not entirely clear whether Handel composed it during his Italian years. Ms Cunningham's notes on this piece are also a bit confusing. She states that it was "later altered and reincarnated" in the opera Rinaldo (1711). But then she refers to an edition of this work by Walsh and writes that "the Sonata is an elaboration of this into a virtuoso solo piece". So exactly what does she play: the sonata before its inclusion into Rinaldo or the piece as Walsh published it?

Let us turn to the performances. Julia Lezhneva is a young singer who has already gained quite a reputation. Some years ago I reviewed her debut disc, "Alleluia", also with Il Giardino Armonico. I assessed it positively and mentioned "the purity of her voice, her excellent diction and her stylish interpretation" as her main assets. I can repeat that here and would like to add that her interpretations are quite expressive. Tu del ciel ministro eletto from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and the aria Pensieri, voi mi tormentate from Agrippina are just two examples. The Salve Regina is also beautifully sung. I had and have problems with her trills which are very fast and a bit harsh; they sound like tremolos and I even had some associations with the bleating of a goat. I prefer slower trills but those are impossible when the tempi are so fast as, for instance, in the aria from La Resurrezione. In my opinion the tempo is too fast and doesn't allow for any dynamical differentiation between good and bad notes and accentuation of elements in the text. I can't see any reason here nor in Come nembo che fugge col vento (Il Tronfo del Tempo e del Disinganno) for performances at breakneck speed. In such moments the playing of Il Giardino Armonico isn't very subtle. Fortunately that is different in the other pieces I mentioned. Dmitry Sinkovsky gives an outstanding account of the obbligato violin part in Tu del Ciel ministro eletto. Giovanni Antonini plays the obbligato flute part in Felicissima quest'alma from Apollo e Dafne nicely but his ornamentation is highly exaggerated. Julia Lezhneva is far more modest in this department. All things said and done I have enjoyed this disc quite a lot, despite some less convincing items.

In case of London Early Opera's recording I have wondered what the sense of such a disc might be. Apparently it is the aim to give some idea of what Handel created in Italy. But that is pretty well documented on disc. Parts of the programme are too fragmented to give any real insight: one instrumental piece from Rodrigo and one aria from Agrippina can hardly do these operas any justice. The latter and the aria from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno are not the most convincing parts of the programme as Mary Bevan uses too much vibrato which is historically untenable and goes at the cost of a clear delivery. Sophie Bevan is much better in the Gloria. This work has been recorded several times and we probably don't need another recording but Ms Bevan sings it quite well. The more intimate sections (Et in terra pax, Domine Deus, Qui tollis peccata mundi) are given subtle and expressive performances. In the opening and closing sections she should have reduced her vibrato. Although Handel's cantatas for bass are available on disc in several recordings, they belong to the lesser-known part of his output. Therefore the inclusion of Cuopre tal volta il cielo makes much sense. Benjamin Bevan delivers a good performance, especially in the arias; the recitatives are not dramatic enough and too strict in time.

On balance I have mixed feelings about this disc. If it has a more or less 'pedagogical' aim it has failed as I have tried to argue. Julia Lezhneva's disc is more something like a vocal recital which happens to focus on the Italian part of Handel's output. That makes it easier to accept that we get extracts from larger works, even though I find the isolation of a single aria from Dixit Dominus not very satisfying. But musically this disc leaves a better impression than "Handel in Italy". The latter's extremely short playing time doesn't speak in its favour either.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Benjamin Bevan
Julia Lezhneva
Il Giardino Armonico
London Early Opera

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