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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
English Cantatas
Nicki Kennedy (soprano); Sally Bruce-Payne (alto); The Brook Street Band (Rachel Harris, Farran Scott (violins); Tatty Theo (cello); Carolyn Gibley (harpsichord))
rec. 7-12 April 2008, Raveningham Church, Raveningham, Norfolk
AVIE AV2153 [69.11 + 49.46]

Experience Classicsonline

Cantata: So Pleasing the Pain is [38.22]
Cantata: With Roving and with Ragin [30.22]
Cantata: To Lonely Shades [23.53]
I like the am’rous Youth [2.33]
An Answer to Collin’s Complaint [1.44]
The Forsaken Nymph [3.32]
Dear Adonis, beauty’s Treasure [5.04]
Love’s but the frailty of the mind [5.02]
Twas when the Seas were roaring (The Melancholy Nymph) [4.18]
Transporting Joy [3.11]

The centre-piece of this new disc from The Brook Street Band is a group of cantatas to music by Handel, setting English texts. The cantatas use a selection of arias from Giulio Cesare, Teseo and Ottone with no linking recitative. Instead they take the form of dialogues between two soloists, alternating arias with a final duet. None of the surviving sources has any of these pieces in Handel’s own hand and it is tempting to assume that some enterprising person simply bought copies of Walsh’s published selections from the operas and created their own pseudo-Handel cantatas.

But, in her illuminating booklet essay, Tatty Theo explains that Walsh’s published scores do not include all of the arias used in the cantatas. The group includes an aria from the 1733 revival of Ottone, which probably means that the cantatas were assembled some time after this date. Another, perhaps revealing, point is that the original keys of the arias have been altered in order to give the cantatas a coherent key structure. All this encourages Tatty Theo to suggest that Handel was involved in some way in the work’s creation.

Granted, his involvement may have been minimal, limited to suggesting arias and keys. Not every aria is blessed with an English text which fits it as well as the original Italian. Cesare’s aria Va tacito becomes Soon as the Day is breaking, (in the cantata So Pleasing the Pain) an aria about the pleasures of the chase. So that the original's 'Silently and stealthily the cunning hunter moves when he is eager for the prey' becomes 'Soon as the dawn is breaking our downy beds forsaking we'll hasten to the field'. Though the general feeling is paralleled, the allocation of words is rather different, giving the aria a rather lame feel. By contrast, in the cantata To Lonely Shades, the arias seem to fit their new texts as if they had been composed that way. Perhaps the arias which use less well known material work the best; we are not so attuned to the details of the original.

We may never know the origin of these pieces and all we can do is listen to this new recording and delight in the felicity of this music. The admirable singers, soprano Nicki Kennedy and alto Sally Bruce-Payne are accompanied by an ensemble consisting of just two violins, cello and harpsichord. Their lively accompaniment is so apposite that you rarely miss the fuller orchestrations of Handel’s originals.

Both Kennedy and Bruce-Payne sing cantatas in a restrained, chamber manner, rather noticeably less demonstrative than if they had been singing in one of the operas. Whilst Kennedy acquits herself admirably I felt that perhaps she was a little less comfortable with Handel’s more elaborate passage-work. Likewise Bruce-Payne tends to shine in the more lyrical, plaintive numbers. But both singers perform with great charm and with a good feeling for Handel’s music. The emphasis here is not so much on bravura and virtuoso display as on charm and character – also on a good sense of musical line. There are moments when the performance seems to be a little too well balanced and that a shade more angst and emotion might be called for; but the fault may also lie with the slight mismatches between words and music.

As for the cantatas themselves, well, they are mainly about love, with rather doggerel verse written in an arch pastoral vein. Somehow this only serves to add to their charms. We tend to forget that, for the vast majority of 18th century music-lovers, their exposure to Handel would be in works like this, small-scale adaptations performed in people’s houses. The results are not as great as some of the original Italian chamber cantatas. But when performed as winningly as they are here they have great appeal.

The disc also includes a selection of Handel’s original songs. Two of these come from the lost English cantata, Venus and Adonis which Handel wrote in 1711. The remainder were written for theatrical events, two of them for the actress Kitty Clive who sang Dalila in Samson.

The songs are not complex pieces, but they charm immensely, providing an interesting view of Handel, a view not generally seen in the larger scale works. The songs are all sung by Kennedy who captures their fragile mood admirably.

Both singers have superb diction; though the booklet includes full texts you hardly need them.

The Brook Street Band have already produced three discs devoted to Handel’s chamber music and this new one is a most welcome addition.

Robert Hugill





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