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Concert reviews

Handel: Duets

Maria Hinojosa Montenegro, soprano; Martin Oro, alto; La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
concert: May 14, 2014, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Amoureusement for harpsichord; Sonata for cello and bc in d minor, op. 5,2; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): A mirarvi io sono intento, duet for soprano, alto and bc (HWV 178); Ah che pur troppo è vero, cantata for soprano and bc (HWV 77); Dolc'è pur d'amor l'affanno, cantata for alto and bc (HWV 109); No, di voi non vuo' fidarmi, duet for soprano, alto and bc (HWV 190); Se tu non lasci amore, duet for soprano, alto and bc (HWV 193); Tanti strali, duet for soprano, alto and bc (HWV 197)

Caterina Dell'Agnello, cello; Gabriele Palomba, theorbo; Fabio Bonizzoni, harpsichord

The chamber cantata was one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment in the baroque era. That was especially the case in Italy where this kind of pieces were performed during the gatherings - conversazioni - of the academies which were active across Italy from around 1700. The first was founded in 1690 in Rome, the 'Arcadian Academy'. It is plausible to assume that vocal duets were also part of the repertoire performed at these meetings. This was a special form which was quite popular, although not every composer wrote that many duets. The most prolific composer of such pieces was Agostino Steffani. The concert of the ensemble La Risonanza, on 14 May 2014 in the Geertekerk in Utrecht, was devoted to the contributions of George Frideric Handel to this genre. According to the work-list (HWV) he composed 21 duets, written between 1711 and 1745. The first duets date from his time in Italy and it therefore seems likely that these have been performed at some of the conversazioni of the academies.

Chamber cantatas could be quite dramatic; some of them can be considered a kind of pocket-size operas. The same goes for duets, in particular those in which two opposing characters are involved. An example from Handel's oeuvre is Amarilli vezzosa, also known as Il duello amore (HWV 82). However, that is not always the case. None of the duets on the programme of La Risonanza's concert was a dialogue between two protagonists. As Fabio Bonizzoni stated in his programme notes, in these duets the two voices are used to realise an expression of the feelings of a single character through polyphony. The involvement of two singers also gives the opportunity to create harmonic tension which reflects the feelings of the protagonist. Those feelings are usually that of an unhappy or unrequited love. The trials and tribulations of love are the central issue of almost all cantatas and duets.

Handel composed duets for two sopranos, but also for soprano and alto. This gives additional opportunities to expose the affetti which are expressed in the text. In a performance of duets the connection between the voices is an essential element. One the one hand they have to blend, on the other hand they have to stand on their own. The blending of the voices of Maria Hinojosa Montenegro and Martin Oro was reasonably good, but the individuality came better to the fore. The main problem was that Ms Montenegro was pretty loud most of the time, and in some cases overshadowed her colleague. Considering that this is basically chamber music one could argue that the performances lacked the intimacy which is required in this repertoire. That was especially the case in the opening duet. It was probably also a matter of getting adjusted to the singing of Ms Montenegro.

Her voice and Oro's are quite different: the former strong, with some sharp edges, the latter rather smooth and softer. That also came to the fore in the solo cantatas. These were well chosen and suited the two voices perfectly. Maria Hinojosa Montenegro sang Ah, che troppo è vero, a dramatic piece in several recitatives and arias. She took the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, and the dramatic character of this piece took advantage of her strong low register. The heavy basso continuo part of the first aria which expresses the sadness about the farewell of Chloris, was well realised by the instrumentalists. The last aria includes a contrast between the two parts, which was performed with differentiation and subtlety.

Dolc'è pur d'amor l'affanno is a more lyrical piece about the joy of suffering from love. The first aria was taken at a rather slow speed, and as a result I found the performance a bit artificial. There was a lot of ornamentation - a little too much -, and Oro also took too much freedom here. The last aria was faster, and here his diction left something to be desired. Oro has a nice voice, and he largely avoided the incessant vibrato which marred some previous performances and recordings of his which I have heard. But I was more satisfied with his parts in the duets than with this cantata.

These duets are all excellent pieces. Handel always had a good hand in writing duets, as in particular his oratorios show. In A mirarvi io son intento it is the second part which is most expressive, as is the case in most duets. In Se tu non lasci amore the transition between the first and the second part was especially dramatic. The last duet of the programme, Tanti strali, is one of Handel's best-known pieces in this genre, and that is a little masterpiece. It received an outstanding performance in which all the nuances of the text were exposed.

Two instrumental pieces were played. Caterina Dell'Agnello gave a compelling performance of Geminiani's cello sonata in d minor from a set of six which belong to the best which has been written for her instrument. She produced a beautiful tone and fully explored the dramatic traits of the fast movements. The lyricism of the slow movements came off well. Bonizzoni delivered a stylish account of a piece from a remarkable set of pièces de clavecin which Geminiani wrote during a stay in Paris.

Although there were some shortcomings this was a most enjoyable concert. Handel is hard to beat anyway and the artists showed a good feel for his art.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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