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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Italian cantatas

[I] "Händel"
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Hille Perl, viola da gamba
La Folia Barockorchester
rec: Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2016, Wilhelmshaven-Sengwarden, St. Georg
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985405322 (© 2017) (73'27")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ah che pur troppo e vero (HWV 77) (Col partir la bella Clori); Aria in d minor (HWV 461); Chaconne in G (HWV 435); Chaconne in G (HWV 442); No se emendarà jamas (HWV 140); Sei pur bella pur vezzosa (HWV 160b) (Nascermi sento al core); Sei pur bella pur vezzosa (La bianca rosa) (HWV 160c); Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in g minor (HWV 364b); Tra le fiamme (HWV 170)

[LFB] Robin Peter Müller, Pia Grutschus, violin; Philipp Comploi, viola; Sophia Scheifler, double bass; Andreas Küppers, harpsichord
with: Barbara Heindlmeier, Christian Heim, recorder; Peter Westermann, oboe; Lee Santana, lute, guitar

[II] "Shades of Love"
Anna Kasyan, soprano; Jorge Jimenez, Anastasia Shapoval, violina; Michel Renard, violab; Ophélie Gaillard, cello; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
rec: Dec 2 - 5, 2016, Paris, Église Bon Secours
Evidence - EVCD038 (© 2017) (66'36")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Clori, mia bella Clori (HWV 92)a; Crudel tiranno amor (HWV 97)ab; La Lucrezia (HWV 145); Se pari è la tua fè (HWV 158a); Sento là che ristretto (HWV 161b)


When George Frideric Handel travelled to Italy in order to broaden his musical horizon, he became acquainted with a typical Italian genre: the cantata. At about the same time his colleagues back home started to use this form for sacred cantatas, for instance Telemann and Bach. The original form was clearly appealing to Handel: during his stay in Italy he already started to compose cantatas of his own, and he would continue to do so after he had settled in England.

The cantatas constitute an important part of Handel's output, but although there is no lack of recordings, a considerable part of his output is hardly known. That also goes for some of the cantatas included in the two discs under review here.

The deutsche harmonia mundi disc comes without a title. The frontispiece simply says "Handel" and mentions the name of the main interpreters. The liner-notes, written by one of them, the gambist Hille Perl, reveal the subject of this recording, or, rather, its starting point. It refers to Handel and Hesse; the latter is the name of one of the most famous colleagues of hers from Handel's time: Ernst Christian Hesse. He was from Thuringia and entered the service of the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1694, who allowed him to study in Paris with Antoine Forqueray and Marin Marais. He would remain Darmstadt for the rest of his life, but also performed elsewhere. In 1705 he performed in Hamburg, where he made friends with Handel. The two men met again in 1708, when Hesse gave concerts in Italy and participated in the performances of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione in Rome. It is likely that Handel wrote the viola da gamba part in his cantata Tra le fiamme for Hesse.

It is one of Handel's better-known cantatas, scored for soprano, two recorders or oboes, two violins, viola da gamba and bc. The text was written by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, and has a moral tenor. It is about the mythological story of Daedalus and Icarus, which is used as an allegory for love. The first aria, which is repeated at the end, says: "You play amid the flames for fun, o heart of mine, in search of happiness, but a fair beauty is deceiving you. A thousand moths perish in the fire, and there is only one phoenix that rises from the ashes after death".

The inclusion of a gamba part in this cantata induced the performers to select pieces in which this instrument is required or can be used. The viola da gamba plays a very minor role in Handel's oeuvre, and the Sonata in g minor is his only piece of chamber music for this instrument. It is Handel's own transcription of what seems to be originally conceived as a sonata for violin. However, Handel only indicates the version for the viola da gamba by using a different clef in the first bar. It is left to the interpreter to adapt the sonata itself.

Several cantatas come in different versions. That is the case, for instance, with Sei pur bella pur vezzosa, which is included in the Handel catalogue in three different versions. Here we hear an aria from the second version; its text does not appear in the third version, which dates from the late 1730s and is performed here complete. The A part of the opening aria of the latter is an adaptation of one of the German arias, Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer (HWV 202). The cantata on a Spanish text, Nò se emenderá jamás, is unique in Handel's oeuvre. It was written in 1707 in Rome, and scored for soprano, guitar and bc. The inclusion of a guitar part undoubtedly reflects the popularity in Italy of the chitarra spagnuola. Ah che pur troppo e vero is for solo voice and bc, and was written in Florence around 1707.

The programme is rounded off with three keyboard pieces. The Air in d minor is a hornpipe, a typical English dance, and is the only of the three pieces played on the harpsichord. The other two items are performed in an arrangement for instrumental ensemble. In the case of the Chaconne in G (HWV 435) the result is quite nice, but the Chaconne in G (HWV 442), a series of 62 variations, is largely disappointing as the performers take too much liberties, and their arrangement includes too many and too frequent changes in instrumentation. For reasons I don't understand the track-list refers to this piece as G228, instead of the usual HWV number.

One probably does not immediately associate Dorothee Mields with secular music of a more or less theatrical character. However, most of the cantatas performed here were intended for performances in intimate surroundings, especially the meetings of the Arcadian academies, and therefore their character suits her voice and approach quite nicely. The cantatas are given very good performances, and the most theatrical part of Tra le fiamme, the aria 'Voli per l'aria', comes off rather well. Hille Perl delivers a fine performance of the sonata. La Folia Barockorchester - here in a small line-up - makes the best of the instrumental parts. I found the performance of the Chaconne HWV 442 rather annoying, and as it takes 15 minutes, this is a pretty serious blot on an otherwise enjoyable production.

The second disc is entirely devoted to chamber cantatas of the more common kind: solo voice and basso continuo, sometimes with additional single strings. That said, Handel takes the freedom to derive from the basic structure as laid down by Alessandro Scarlatti: two pairs of recitative and aria. La Lucrezia opens with two such pairs, but these are followed by a recitative, a short furioso and another aria and closes with a recitative and an arioso. Clori, mia bella Clori comprises four recitative and aria pairs.

In Handel's cantatas "[the] listener is drawn into a variety of emotional states including feelings of early love and trembling excitement, nostalgia, the pain of separation, the rage of betrayal, and hatred", Suzanne Laetitia Kassian states in her liner-notes. In La Lucrezia the latter aspects dominate. That comes off well in Anna Kasyan's performance, which can hardly surprise, as she has become mainly known as an opera singer. The pain of separation manifests itself in Crudel tiranno Amor; the first aria, with the indication larghetto, is particularly beautiful. Equally nice is 'Mormorando esclaman l'onde' from Sento là che ristretto, in which the murmuring of the waves, to which the opening phrase refers, is effectively depicted.

Here Anna Kasyan, who was a new name to me, delivers the best performances. In the slower and more introverted arias she keeps her vibrato in check, although she is never free of it. In the more dramatic parts and the arias performed at high speed, her incessant and pretty wide vibrato is hard to swallow. Kasyan clearly cares about communicating the text, but due to her vibrato the words are sometimes hard to understand. That prevents me from unequivocally recommending this disc. That is a shame, because it includes several cantatas which are hardly known and probably not even available in other recordings. The instrumentalists are alright, but especially in the cantatas with basso continuo alone the harpsichord is underexposed, and often overshadowed by the cello.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Anna Kasyan
Hille Perl
La Folia Barockorchester

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