Handel's cantata Apollo e Dafne
dates from his Italian
period when he wrote a large number of cantatas for his Italian
patrons to perform in their palaces. They came in various shapes
and sizes but Apollo e Dafne
is one of the larger ones,
lasting some 40 minutes. It tells the story of Apollo's pursuit
of the nymph Daphne in what might seem to be an operatic scene.
But the cantata's history is slightly more complex than it might
seem. It was probably completed by Handel on his (brief) return
to Hanover in 1710 - before skidding off to London - so we are
not sure exactly why Handel wrote the piece. It is generously
scored: two soloists, strings, oboes, flute, bassoon and continuo.
And the way Handel wrote it, means that it is hardly comparable
to an operatic dry-run; the drama of the piece is far faster,
far more concentrated than the leisurely pace of then contemporary
operatic forms. So all we can really do, is sit back and enjoy
the music. Though there is one further conundrum, despite its
high quality Handel never seems to have re-used any of the music
from the piece.
Like much of Handel's similar output, this cantata has not been
overly well represented on disc. Now the Phoenix Editions re-issuing
of Westdeutschen Rundfunk broadcasts brings us a 1978 studio
recording by the Capella Coloniensis with Helen Donath and Peter
Christoph Runge. In fact it seems actually to have been recorded
by SDR or at least used their studio.
Though the CD booklet talks about the orchestra being founded
in 1954 to explore historical performance practice, I am unclear
as to whether in 1978 they were playing on modern or historical
instruments. The orchestral accompaniment on this disc is heavier
and more robust than we would expect nowadays, but not outrageously
so. The strings play with a crisp bounce and some air around
the notes. Speeds are steady, but not too slow. You would never
mistake this for a modern period performance and it is, I think,
rather more solid than comparable performances of the period
by the English Chamber Orchestra, with a far heavier bass line.
But this is as much to do with stylistic preferences.
Much depends in this cantata on the soloists, and here we are
very well served. Peter Christoph Runge is a very fine Apollo
indeed. He has an attractively focused voice and is only slightly
let down by the rather fuzzy nature of some of his runs. His
second aria, Spezza l'arco
, where he brags that his skill
in archery is greater than Cupid’s, has rather a high tessitura
which does tax him somewhat. But he is wonderfully urgent when
pressing Dafne, as in his aria Come rosa
(Just as the
Dafne has the smaller role but she has to be alluring, quick
to anger and untouchable, by turns. Here Helen Donath is all
you could want, providing you like her slightly fluttery, tight
vibrato-laden voice. Generally I shy away from too much vibrato
in this sort of repertoire, but here I found Donath suited me
admirably. She sings with a fine lyric line and is admirably
supported by the various woodwind soloists. Her final aria, Come
(As Neptune's star in heaven), in which she counsel's
restraint to the urgent God, is lovely with all the delicacy
of a chamber piece. This is followed by a striking duet in which,
unusually for the baroque period, the two characters have are
not balanced in their points of view; Apollo is lyrically pleading
and Dafne is briskly refusing.
The cantata lacks an overture and most recordings add one from
somewhere else. This disc also includes the overture from Il
trionfo del tempo e del disinganno
, but rather perversely
this is put at the end of the disc and frankly, I can't find
this over-steady performance much to get excited about.
This is a recording which does show its age but the performances
of the two soloists are amply sufficient to lift it into the
realms of the interesting and, perhaps, the desirable.