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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


Georg Friedrich HAENDEL (1685-1759)
Tra le Fiame - Dramatic Solo Cantatas
Overture in D Major
Prelude in D Minor for harpsichord
Cantata Armida Abbandonata
Concerto for Violin and Strings in B-flat Major
Cantata Ah! che troppo e vero
Chaconne in B-flat Major for harpsichord and strings
Cantata Tra le Fiamme
Recitative and arioso Ombra mai fu from Xerxes
Ellen Hargis, soprano
Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Ingrid Matthews and Byron Schenkman, directors
Margriet Tindemans, viola da gamba
Rec: April, May 1996, St. Thomas Center, Bothel, Washington.
WILDBOAR WLBR 9604 [73.15]

This recording, whose title is somewhat deceptive, contains much more than "Dramatic solo cantatas". It features four cantatas from Handel's early years in Rome, but also a selection of instrumental works: an Overture in D, which may be a true version of one of his Opus 3 Concerti Grossi; a Violin Concerto arranged from a trio sonata; a Chaconne from an Organ Concerto arranged for harpsichord and strings (an alternative approved by Handel); and a Prelude for harpsichord.

This variety actually adds to the interest of the disc, offering what is in essence a complete program of Handel's music, showcasing a variety of forms and instruments. The heart of the disc is naturally the cantatas: there are three of them, all for soprano and small instrumental groups. Two of the cantatas are for soprano and continuo, and the third, Tra le Fiamme, is for soprano, bass viol, recorders, oboe, violins and continuo.

Solo cantatas depend entirely on the singer. And listeners will like these works or not according to their feelings about the soloist's voice. Soprano Ellen Hargis won me over in the first notes of the aria Ah! Crudele in the cantata Armido Abbandonata. This small work - which places the singer almost alone, naked, her voice against the world - is intimate and moving, and Hargis, in spite of the occasional imperfect note, makes the music soar. Her voice is a rich and earthy mezzo, her delivery is moving, and her tone excellent. She uses vibrato tastefully, and shows her ability to cover a wide range in the aria Col Apartir la bella Clori, in the cantata Ah! che pur troppo e vero.

The cantata Tra le Fiamme is a well-known work, and features some of Handel's finest music. Scored for many more instruments than the other cantatas on this disc, the instrumental colours are delightful and varied, and the original instruments give this piece a beautiful tone. The obbligato viol part in this work is demanding and attractive, but ends up being hidden in the mix.

The musicians of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra , here in their first recording, show their abilities both as an orchestra, in the opening Overture in D major and the B-flat major Violin Concerto, as well as when providing accompaniment. They have excellent dynamic mastery, remaining in the background when necessary and standing out when required. The balance between the voice and instruments is ideal, and the recording is nearly perfect - the only drawback is a bit too much reverb on soprano Hargis's voice, making it sound just slightly artificial.

The disc ends with the quasi-obligatory Ombra mai fu, from Xerxes, which is probably sung on every Handel disc for soprano ever recorded. Hargis is excellent here, but one gets tired of hearing the same song over and over. It would have been much more fulfilling to end with the da capo aria Tra le Fiamme rather than add three more minutes to the disc to record the classical equivalent of Louie, Louie yet again.

But this is an immensely satisfying disc, featuring excellent musicians and a sensuous, moving soprano. A must for Handelians.

Kirk McElhearn

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