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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1739)
Tu fedel?. tu costante? HWV 171 (1707) [15.56]
Mi palpita il cor HWV 132a (1711) [10.53]
Alpestre monte HWV 81 (1707) [10.12]
Tra le fiamme HWV 170 (1708) [17.00]
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
The Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood
Recorded December 1984, St. Barnabas, North Finchley, London
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 7468 [54.36]
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The majority of Handel’s cantatas were written during his stay in Italy (1706-1710). They were designed to provide entertainment at the soirées of his aristocratic patrons, the performers being singers and instrumentalists who also received aristocratic patronage. The works themselves are of varying types: full-scale dramatic cantatas like Aci, Galatea e Polifemo or short cantatas for solo voice and continuo alone.

The aristocratic audience was a sophisticated one, so composers and poets who wrote for them were able to experiment with the genre in the knowledge that their listeners would be appreciative. Handel was to mine his Italian cantatas for the rest of his life, building on his experiments to create full-scale Italian operas. The small-scale cantata is not strictly a dramatic genre, but in his Italian examples Handel often gives the impression of trying out operatic styles, as if the cantata was a short operatic scene.

The parts and score of Tu fedel? to costante? HWV 171 were copied in May 1707 for Marchese Ruspoli, Handel’s most important patron in Rome; they are the first items in the Ruspoli archive to mention Handel’s name. The singer was almost certainly Margherita Durastanti, a soprano with whom Handel was to have a long and profitable professional relationship. She sang in a number of his operas in London. The anonymous text tells of a woman rejecting a fickle lover; a refreshing change from the usual expressions of confused or hopeless love to be found in such works.

The piece consists of four contrasting arias with a brisk introductory Sonata. Handel re-used two of the arias (with new words) in his opera Rodrigo; the tune of another aria was the basis for the final chorus of Alexander’s Feast in 1736.

Mi palpita il cor HWV132, exists in a number of versions with different instrumental obbligatos. The version of the cantata performed here, for soprano and oboe, probably dates from Handel’s early years in London (circa. 1711); there is a later version for alto voice and flute. The cantata is re-working of Dimmi, o mio cor HWV106 which dates from his Italian period. The music from opening Arioso crops up in a number of later works including Samson. Following the Arioso, the cantata consists of the traditional two arias introduced by recitatives, expressing conflicting emotions in a young man uncertain of his love.

Alpestre monte HWV81 was written in Florence in 1707; it was thought to exist only in fragmentary form but this recording uses manuscript versions which were discovered in Manchester Central Library and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A setting of a text by Handel’s contemporary Francesco Mancini, it expresses the thoughts of a young man driven to distraction by his love. It opens in a mood of exaggerated melancholy and the young man goes on to express ‘his’ emotion in two intense arias.

Tra le fiamme HWV170, is again of uncertain date but it has a prominent part for viola da gamba which indicates it may be contemporary with Handel’s oratorio La Resurezzione which dates from 1708. Italian players of the instrument were rare and the part may have been written for the violist Ernst Christian Hesse who visited Italy in 1708. The poem, by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, begins by comparing a lover and a moth fatally drawn into a flame then continues with a series of reflections on Icarus. The main theme of the opening aria is based on the Passacaille from the overture to Rodrigo; Handel re-used it again in Partenope. In a masterly stroke, Handel repeats the first section of the opening aria at the end of the cantata.

These performances were first recorded in December 1984 and wear their age well. Kirkby’s voice suits this style of smaller-scale Handelian music. Whereas in the bigger, operatic piece I long for a richer, more vibrant voice, in these chamber pieces she is ideally suited, delightfully capturing the fugitive pleasure and pains that Handel depicts. As ever she is completely assured at a technical level, dazzling with her virtuosity but always in the service of expression and the music.

Kirkby is beautifully supported by Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, with crisp, dance-like accompaniments and some fine solo instrumental playing.

My only complaint is to wish that she’d recorded more of them; a Kirkby edition of the complete Handel Italian cantatas would have been a true delight. Still, we have this delightful selection; a record which I will play again and again.

Robert Hugill


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