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"Bewitched - Enchanted music by Geminiani & Handel"

Robin Johannsen, sopranoa
Les Passions de l'Âme
Dir: Meret Lüthi

rec: Jan 2 - 7, 2014, Bern, Yehudi Menuhin Forum
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985438432 (© 2017) (60'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/J; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Concerto grosso after Corelli No. 12 in d minor 'La Follia' [1]; La forest enchantée; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Dietro l'orme fugaci (Armida abbandonata) (HWV 105)a

Source: [1] Francesco Geminiani, Concerti grossi ... della seconda parte del op.5 d'Arcangelo Corelli, 1729

Daniela Lieb, Anne Parisot, transverse flute; Olivier Picon, Thomas Müller, horn; Fruzsina Hara, trumpet; Katrin Lazar, bassoon; Meret Lüthi, Varoujan Doneyan, Louella Alatiit, Daniela Helm, Stéphanie Erös, Annegret Hoffmann, violin; Lucile Chionchini, Matthias Jäggi, viola; Rebecca Rosen, Linda Mantcheva, cello; Love Persson, violone; Simon Linné, theorbo; Ieva Saliete, harpsichord, organ

For most of his life Francesco Geminiani worked in England. However, in the 1740s and 1750s he went to Paris several times, first to oversee the printing of some of his music, and in 1754 for the performance of the incidental music La forest enchantée. It was commissioned from him by the architect and theatre director Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni. That was a bit surprising, considering that Gemiani had very little to do with the theatre in the course of his career. He never composed any opera, not even any vocal music. The latter was less relevant in this case, as the music was intended for a pantomime, without any vocal parts.

It was performed in the Grand Theatre du Palais des Tuileries. The subject was taken from the poem Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso (1574), which was also the foundation for operas, such as Rinaldo, Armida and Tancredi. The pantomime consisted of five acts. The Christian army prepares for a storming of Jerusalem, but the forest where the Christians may fell the trees is enchanted by the wizard Ismeno. The spirits living here use visions of horror to scare off anyone who tries to enter the forest. After various unsuccessful attempts, Rinaldo manages to break the spell.

The pantomime has not been preserved, which makes it impossible to tell exactly what every single movement represents. The dramatic character of the piece comes off, though, through the sequence of movements, which contrast in character, tempo and instrumentation. The orchestra consists of strings and basso continuo, but in several movements these are joined by winds: two transverse flutes, two horns and a trumpet. Moreover, some movements follow each other attacca, which increases the drama.

Geminiani's music, which is divided into two parts, in d minor and D major respectively, has been preserved in an autograph score and a printed edition. The performance was not successful, but it is not entirely clear, whether that was due to Geminiani's music. It has been noted that his compositions were appreciated in Paris, but it seems that his music for this pantomime was considered "too Italian". In England he was seen as a rather conservative composer, and someone like Charles Burney was quite critical about him. Ironally, he thought that the music for The Enchanted Forrest included too many French elements.

As the movements lack a description of the scenes, one has to use his own imagination to discover the connection to the story. It is also due to the performers to realise the dramatic features of the piece. In that respect Les Passions de l'Âme leave nothing to be desired. The playing is theatrical and colourful, also thanks to the excellent contributions of the wind players, and the contrasts are fully explored. This music is not very well known, but deserves to be. This disc should help to make it better known.

A token of Geminiani's 'conservatism' was that during his whole career he held his teacher Arcangelo Corelli in high esteem. This is expressed in the set of concerti grossi after Corelli: arrangements of the twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which Corelli published as his opus 5. The most famous sonata from that set is the last, a series of increasingly brilliant variations on La Follia. It is therefore not surprising that Geminiani's arrangement also counts among his most frequently-performed compositions. This piece opens the programme and receives a vivid performance.

The two parts of Geminiani's incidental music are separated by one of the best-known cantatas by George Frideric Handel. It makes sense to include here Dietro l'orme fugaci, also known as Armida abbandonata, because the story is taken from the same poem by Tasso as La forest enchantée. Armida intends to kill the Christian knight Rinaldo, but falls in love and carries him to an enchanted island, where he falls under her spell. He is rescued by other knights and escapes by ship. Armida vows to torment him, but can't and expresses the wish to die.

Handel has created a highly dramatic scena, despite the modest scoring for soprano, two violins and basso continuo. The piece opens with an accompagnato in which the soprano is accompanied by a solo violin, which acts as a kind of second voice with a strongly theatrical part. The second violin only adds some chords, and this way replaces the basso continuo which keeps silent. After the first aria we hear a secco recitative, followed by another accompagnato. In this performance there is a bit too much space in time between these two sections, which damages the dramatic flow. Otherwise this is a very good performance in which the feelings of Armida are convincingly conveyed. Robin Johannsen takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives. However, she takes too much freedom in the ornamentation, deviating sometimes too far from what Handel has written down. She also uses a bit too much vibrato now and then.

All in all, this disc deserves a wholehearted welcome, especially because of the fine theatrical performance of Geminiani's La forest enchantée. Handel's cantata is available in many recordings, and is a nice bonus here.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Robin Johannsen
Les Passions de l'Âme

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