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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Un’alma innamorata (1707) [13.49]
Detro l’orme fuggaci (1707) [13.53]
Figlio d’alte speranze (1706/7) [10.55]
Laudate Pueri Dominum (1707) [21.20]
Veronika Winter (soprano)
Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max
rec. 11-13 March 2005, Sendesaal, Deutschlandrundfunk, Köln
CAPRICCIO SACD 71 083 [52.37]

 


Handel’s Italian cantatas were written for chamber performance in the homes of the various Italian noblemen who became his patrons. Direct information about the cantatas is limited and we need to examine a variety of sources to get some idea of the timing of their first performances. The bills for having the music copied provide one source of information, but these copies might reflect a patron’s desire to possess the music rather than being a record of the first performance. A further source of information is the paper on which the autograph manuscripts are written as this varied from city to city as Handel made his peregrination through Italy. 

Having been invited to visit Florence he first stopped off in Venice, where the Venetian style of opera caught his attention. He then moved on to Florence and then to Rome. It is from this first period (1706 – 1707) that the works on this disc come. From May to October 1707 Handel was employed by Cardinal Ruspoli and many of the cantatas that he wrote were designed to be performed at the meetings of the Arcadina Academy in the Palazzo Bonelli. At this Academy the great men would meet, each taking a pastoral pseudonym. Many of the texts that Handel set reflect this pseudo-pastoral setting. 

Of the cantatas on this disc, Figlio d’alte speranze (or Abdolonymous) is probably the first and seems to have been written whilst Handel was in Florence or Venice. The cantata's alternative name arose because it describes the fortunes of King Abdolonymous. Un’alma innamorata and Detro l’orme fuggaci (or Armida abbandonata) were both written in June 1707 for Cardinal Ruspoli. Un’alma innamorata was probably first performed at Viganello, Ruspoli's country estate and Detro l’orme fuggaci at Palazzo Bonelli. Detro l’orme fuggaci is also known as Armida abbandonata because in it, the despairing sorceress Armida hurls threats at her departing lover, Rinaldo, but finds her love leaves her powerless to hurt him.

The psalm setting, Laudate Pueri, dates from the same period as the cantatas. It was completed in July 1707 for Carlo Colonna and premiered on 16 July for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. 

The works were written for the great virtuosi of the day, singers who made names for themselves in the opera house. These would have been a mixture of men and women, castrati and sopranos. The Italian soprano Magherita Durastantini sang many of Handel’s cantatas during his Italian period. Handel himself played the harpsichord and the instrumental parts would be taken by the patron’s own musicians. 

The problem with these works is that, being written for great voices, they require considerable vocal resources to perform them. And it is not enough being able to simply sing the notes, you must then be able to use them to create a character. Each of the cantatas is a short scene, a quasi-operatic scena in miniature. In fact, Handel used much of the music again when he came to write his Italian operas in London.

On this disc, the soprano part is taken by Veronika Winter, a German soprano who has studied under Barbara Schlick and Charles Brett. Her voice is of the clear, pure soprano type, think Emma Kirkby. Though Winter is no Kirkby clone, their voices and mannerisms have something in common. One of Winter’s strengths is her ability to float high vocal lines with apparent ease, clarity of tone and a fine line. This clarity of tone, strength of vocal line and her gloriously free top are some of the principal reasons for listening to this disc. 

If we turn to the first cantata, Un’alma innamorata then the first aria, Quel povero core starts to reveal Winter’s strengths and her weaknesses. The phrasing is lovely and her general approach is affecting but the passage-work is a trifle smudged. The second aria, Io god, riod e spero is a lively piece and you can’t help feeling that Winter is being a little too careful. I wanted the vocal line projected with more vividness and again I worried about the passage-work. These concerns continued in the final aria. 

The opening aria of Ah Crudele shows off her strengths, as she floats some superb long lines. But the preceding accompagnato is a little undramatic and this is repeated in the central accompagnato and aria. Winter’s performances are musical but she did not seem to be inclined to take charge of this wonderfully powerful music. The closing aria, In tanti affani miei shows the singer at her best. The piece is a simple siciliana and Winter projects the vocal lovely line with charm and creates a ravishing whole. 

The remaining two items on the disc, the chamber cantata Figlio d’alte speranza and the Psalm setting Laudate pueri both exhibit the same mix of strengths and weaknesses as the first two pieces.  Laudate pueri contains one curiosity, the Qui habitare facet movement has a melodic phrase which would re-surface many years later in Had I but Jubal’s lyre from Joshua.

In the Italian chamber cantatas, Winter does use the text to create a certain amount of drama, though I could have wished for a lot more. But I felt that in Laudate pueri she could have used the Latin text more.

For me, there are just too many occasions when Winter seems to be taking care. Her general performance lacks vividness and bravura and no amount of ravishing tone and beautifully floated vocal lines will compensate me for this. Add to that the rather smudged quality of her passage-work and I honestly cannot see me returning to these recordings very often. I realise that I am being a little harsh, and others may think differently and find that the fine tone quality of Winter’s voice is enough to recommend these discs. 

She is ably supported by Hermann Max and Das Kleine Konzert. These chamber cantatas are rarely about instrumental bravura, but Handel does use occasional solo instrumental lines. Max and his group accompany admirably, providing crisp, lively instrumental tone and take advantage of whatever opportunities Handel gives them. 

In many ways this is an interesting disc, well programmed and performed with a soloist possessed of a lovely voice. But somehow, for me Veronika Winter's rather understated performances of the cantatas lacks the necessary bravura and drama. 

Robert Hugill 

 

 


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