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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Splende l'alba in oriente HWV 166 [6.54] (1)
Figli del mesto cor HWV 112 [8.15] (2)
Dolce pur d'amor l'affano HWV 109a [7.36] (2)
Mi palpita il cor HWV 132c [12.39] (2)
Vedendo Amor HWV 175 [12.53] (2)
Venne voglia ad Amore HWV 176 [5.58] (3)
Fra pensieri quel pensiero HWV 115 [7.01] (3)
Sonata in B minor Op. 1 No. 9 HWV 367a [14.25] (4)
Un' alma innamorata HWV 173 [13.49] (5)
Dietro l'orme fugaci HWV 105 [13.53] (5)
Ouverture (Admeto, HWV 22) (1727) [5.34] (6)
Introduzione (Admeto, HWV 22) (1727) [3.19] (6)
Orride larve (Admeto, HWV 22) (1727) [6.06] (6)
Sinfonia (Admeto, HWV 22) (1727) [1.18] (6)
Fammi combattere (Orlando, HWV 31) (1733) [3.11] (6)
Cielo! Se tu il consenti (Orlando, HWV 31) (1733) [4.15] (6)
Dove sei (Rodelinda, HWV 19) (1725) [6.30)
Gavotte & Menuetto (Alcina, HWV 34) (1735) [6.27] (6)
Venti, turbini (Rinaldo, HWV 7a) (1711) [3.49] (6)
Va tacito (Giulio Cesare, HWV 17) (1724) [7.07] (6)
Passacaille & Giga (Radamisto HWV 12a) (1720) [1.18] (6)
Amor, nel mio penar (Flavio, HWV 16) (1723) [6.25] (6)
Rompo I lacci (Flavio, HWV 16) (1723) [5.06] (6)
Jochen Kowalski (alto) (1, 2); Axel Köhler (alto) (3, 6); Veronika Winter (soprano) (5); Christine Schornsheim (harpsichord) (1, 2); Siegfried Pank (viola da gamba) (1, 2); Karl-Heinz Passin (flute) (2); Christoph Huntgeburth (flute) (3, 4); Anne Schumann (violin) (3, 4); Balazs Mate (Cello) (3, 4); Raphael Alpermann (harpsichord) (3, 4)
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin (1); Das Kleine Konzert (5); Handelfestspielorchester des Opernhauses Halle (6); Hermann Max (conductor) (5); Howard Arman (conductor) (6)
rec. (1,2) Leipzig, Paul Gerhardt Kirche, 1988; (3,4) Bad Lauchstadt Kursaal, March 1995; (5) Cologne, Deutschlandrundfunk, Sendsaal, March 2005; (6) Kursaal Bad Lauchstadt, October 1994
PHOENIX EDITION 404 [3 CDs: 53.04 + 55.45 + 66.02] 
Experience Classicsonline

Handel's cantatas were written for some of the greatest singers of the day to sing to Handel's keyboard accompaniment in the salons of the great and the good in Italy and in London. He wrote by far the majority of his cantatas whilst in Italy and they formed a sort of proving ground for his operatic technique. In fact many would be re-used in his later operas. Some have instrumental accompaniment and a few are quite grand, but a great many are written for just harpsichord and a few instruments. 

So when thinking of these performances, we should bear in mind that the situation was not so much Schubert performing amongst a few friends and more like Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge performing at Buckingham Palace. 

This distinction is quite important for the way we attack the cantatas. They should be performed by voices capable of doing justice to the best of Handel's operas. They can be grandly operatic. 

In this set Phoenix have assembled a number of different recitals recorded at different periods. The first two discs are cantatas and the final one operatic arias sung by Axel Köhler, who sings two cantatas on the second disc. 

On the first disc we have Jochen Kowalski, one of the first German counter-tenors to come to international prominence. Though one of his earliest roles was Giustino in Handel's Giustino, he was known first in the UK for the title part in Gluck's Orfeo. And it is in the more lyric music that Kowalski excels. His voice is quite narrow of focus, with a relatively shallow bottom register; it is not the most beautiful of voices, but it is very expressive. He sings Handel beautifully fluently, with due weight to the words and the drama. But occasionally he lets himself down as his runs tend to be laboured or smudged. 

What I missed most was the virtuoso sense of bravura that the earlier performers of these works would have brought to the pieces. And his vocal colouration lacks variety. Against that, Kowalski sings with a fine sense of line and in the slower movements contributes some really beautiful singing. 

For the first cantata, Splende l'alba in oriente he is nicely accompanied by the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, but for the remainder there is just a harpsichord and viola da gamba, with a flute joining the ensemble for Mi palpita il cor. Such is the skill of composer and instrumentalists, that you never miss the larger forces. 

Whilst we associate the cantatas with Handel's Italian period, he also wrote them in London in his early days. Splendide l'alba in oriente, Dolce par d'amor l'afanno and Mi palpito il cor were written in London. Figlio del mesto cor possibly dates from 1707 (in Italy) or maybe even from Hannover, and Vedendo Amor from Rome in 1707. 

The second disc opens with a pair of cantatas sung by Axel Köhler, Venne voglia ad Amore (Rome 1707) and Fra pensiero quel pensiero, which lacks an autograph and survives in an English manuscript but may in fact date from Handel's Italian period. 

Köhler has a rich, vibrato-laden voice with bags of vocal colour. Köhler has personality and should be ideal in this repertoire. But here I found his singing lacked a good sense of line and he rather swoops and slides about. So though Köhler has the personality and something of the bravura that I want, I must confess that I far preferred Kowalski. 

Köhler is followed by a beautifully limpid performance of the sixth of the Op. 1 flute sonatas. Christoph Huntegeburth's flute playing is beautiful, but where necessary he and his companions can stir us with some lovely virtuoso passages. I wished that the vocal contributions had been as fine as this. 

The Flute Sonata is followed by soprano Veronika Winter in a pair of cantatas from Handel's Italian period accompanied by Herman Max and Das Kleine Konzert. I am afraid that I found Winter's voice narrow in tone and rather pallid. She has a lyric voice which might have some potential, but she does not really show it here. Technically she is quite acceptable, though her line could be a little firmer. But the voice lacks colour and there is no feel for words or drama. 
For the final disc Axel Köhler returns, this time with a programme of arias written for Senesino. These are interspersed with instrumental items, in fact over a third of the disc is devoted to instrumental music. This is a shame because it means that all we hear of Alcina is a pair of dances, rather than any of Senesino's music.

The Halle Orchestra are a modern instrument band and not the most interesting group to listen to. Though their performance is creditable and lively, each time they get a spot you wish that Axel Köhler was singing. On this recording Köhler is on far better form, or perhaps the recording has captured his voice rather better. I incline to this latter view.

He is firmer of voice and gives a far better line than in the two cantatas on the second disc. He also sings the arias with a wonderfully vivid sense of swagger, something which is essential if the opera arias are to come off. But the orchestra comes over as rather dense at times so that you feel that Köhler is forced to push his voice a little more than is desirable. In an aria like Va tascito from Giulio Cesare, you feel that Köhler would have benefited from lightness and flexibility in the orchestra, something he doesn't get. Instead the accompaniment is resolutely deliberate and seems to get more so as the arias progresses.

At his best on this disc Köhler is vivid and dramatic, singing the slower items with a superb sense of line. But I am afraid that I just cannot like his passagework, where the combination of fast notes and his vibrato seems to do something strange and unsatisfactory.

When Köhler's recital of Senesino arias was originally released, the Gramophone rather liked it. And there are many aspects which are admirable, but overall I can't get too enthusiastic about it.

The CD booklet includes a short article plus the texts in Italian and German, but no English translations, which is rather frustrating especially as the cantatas include some of the lesser known ones.

This set includes some strong performances and some unsatisfactory ones. But many Handelians will want it for the Handel cantatas which are not often recorded.

Robert Hugill



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