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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 Ė 1739)
Cuopre tal volta il cielo (HWV 98) (3)
Tu fedel, tu costante? (HWV 171) (1)
Mi palpita il cor (HWV 132c) (2)
Spande ancor mio dispetto (HWV 165) (3)
Amarilli vezzosa (Il duello amoroso) (HWV 82) (1,2)
Miriam Allan (soprano) (1)
Christopher Field (alto) (2)
Michael Leighton Jones (bass) (3)
Arcadia/Jacqueline Ogeil
Recorded 3, 5 March, 19-21 July 2004, Carmelite Monastery, Kew.
TALL POPPIES TP173 [70.35]


Tall Poppies


The majority of Handelís cantatas are essentially chamber works, written for a solo singer accompanied by harpsichord, a few solo strings and possibly an obbligato instrument. With Handel himself at the keyboard, they were written to show off the talents of singers at entertainments in the houses of the nobility. During his early Italian stay (1706 to 1710), he wrote a remarkable number of these works for use in the Palaces of his Italian patrons. Often a cantata can be taken as a single dramatic scene and we can see Handel experimenting with techniques that he would use in operas.

In performance, two things are of paramount importance, virtuosity and drama. This music was written for some of the finest singers of the age and when performed today a singer should be able to encompass all of Handelís technical demands and then go on to use them for dramatic and expressive purposes. In a cantata which encompasses two or more arias, the composer uses the dramatic form to exhibit a variety of contrasting emotions (affekts) and the singer must be able to reflect this.

On this disc, the Australian group Arcadia play five cantatas which date from 1708 to 1711, all but one written during Handelís Italian stay. In the May of 1708 Handel travelled to Naples and during his stay there wrote the solo bass cantata Cuopre tal volt ail cielo. It opens with a wonderfully descriptive dramatic accompanied recitative describing a storm whipped up by Neptune. The cantata goes on to compare the singerís torment, caused by his lover, to such a storm and begs her not to turn her anger on him.

Arcadia are a small group (two violins, flute, cello, theorbo and harpsichord) and they reflect the essentially chamber nature of these pieces, providing a wonderfully crisp, stylish accompaniment. Unfortunately bass soloist, Michael Leighton Jones, begins the accompagnato sounding very hollow of voice. In the subsequent arias, he is reasonably efficient in the passage-work, but musically he is rather boring and inexpressive. He fails to convey the meaning in these wonderfully dramatic words.

The second cantata, Tu fedel? tu constante? was written in 1706 or 1707 and may have been performed at the palace of Handelís patron, Marchese Ruspoli. Many of Handelís soprano cantatas at this period were written for soprano Margherita Durastanti, a charismatic singer who followed Handel to London and was a strong supporter of his operatic career. Here it is sung by Miriam Allen who has a clear, bright voice. She accurately encompasses the required virtuosity and uses it expressively and passionately, though I would have liked a little more Latinate fire and a slightly less of the boyish quality. After all, the cantata is about a woman who believes that her lover is unfaithful and inconstant.

Mi palpita il cor is for solo alto and baroque flute. The cantata dates from Handelís earliest London period. Alto Christopher Field has an affecting, rather traditional counter-tenor voice, though his passage-work is inclined to be smudged. Again, it sets a text about the pains of love and though Field is more than adequate musically he seems to lack the operatic instincts required. He fails to dramatise the text or to put the music over with bravura. Bass, Michael Leighton Jones, similarly displays a lack of dramatic instinct in the final solo cantata on the disc, Spande ancor mio dispetto, in which the poet again compares his feelings to dramatic storms and events in nature.

The final item on the disc is the cantata Amarilli vezzosa, the duello amoroso, for solo soprano and solo alto. In a sequence of arias and recitatives concluding with a duet, Amarillis and the shepherd Daliso work out their amorous disagreement. Amarillis has fallen out of love with Daliso and he refuses to accept this. The piece ends on a note of agreeing to disagree rather than fulfilment. It was first performed by Durastanti and the alto castrato Pasqualino in October 1708 at a conversazione at the Palazzo Bonelli, in Rome. Here it is given a charming performance by Allan and Field, but I would have liked a greater feeling for passion.

In all of these performances, Arcadia give admirably flexible support and I only wish that I could be more enthusiastic about the performers. Perhaps if Miriam Allan had been given a greater share of the cantatas I would have been more enthusiastic.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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