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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Handel in Italy - Volume 1
Gloria HWV deest (c.1706) [15:55]
Passacaille from the overture to Rodrigo, HWV 5 (1707) [4:21]
Bel piacere from Agrippina, Act III, Scene 10, HWV 6 (1709-10) [2:08]
Sonata for a Harpsichord with Double Keys in G Major, HWV 579 (c.1707-10) [5:14]
Un pensiero nemico di pace from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Part 1, HWV 46a: (1707) [4:22]
Cantata: Cuopre tal volta il cielo, HWV 98 (1708) [11:00]
Sophie Bevan (soprano - Gloria); Mary Bevan (soprano - Agrippina and Il Trionfo); Benjamin Bevan (bass, Cuopre tal volta il cielo); Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord)
London Early Opera/Bridget Cunningham
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, 2013

For British music-lovers there is a tendency to claim George Frideric Handel as one of their own. We concede that he was born in Halle in the Duchy of Magdeburg and was therefore a German composer. That said, we tend to concentrate on his impact in London and possibly Dublin (Messiah) whilst ignoring his peregrinations around other parts of Europe. Yet, as the liner-notes of this first volume of ‘Handel in Italy’, it is ‘key to understanding Handel’s later successes’ to examine the compositions from this period. During his four-year sojourn in Italy, Handel composed operas, secular cantatas and instrumental works. The present CD has selected a number of works or extracts from this period ‘that contain musical inspiration [found by] modern audiences… [in] later incarnations in operatic arias or the grand melodic lines of now-familiar oratorio favourites.’

The CD includes three major compositions: one liturgical piece, a cantata and a keyboard sonata. There are also three extracts: one overture and two arias from contemporary operas and an oratorio.

It is important when considering a work setting the Latin text 'Gloria' to remember that it was written in Rome at the behest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Handel was a Lutheran, so his acceptance into the musical world of the Vatican was remarkable. This Gloria was rediscovered as recently as 2001. The manuscript is not in the composer's hand; internal evidence suggests that it is genuine Handel. It was probably written in Rome around 1706, and, according to the liner-notes may have been sung in the chapel at Vignanello, which was the country estate of his Roman patron, Marquis Ruspoli.

I have not consciously heard this work before: I was impressed by every bar. It is beautifully stated, often moving, subtle and never overblown. It is sung to perfection here. Interestingly, the CD notes point out a trajectory from Telemann’s mass setting (which one of two is not stated), by way of the present work to Vivaldi’s Gloria of 1708.

Due to a papal ban on opera, Handel returned to Florence during the summer of 1707 to compose Rodrigo. The opera was first heard in that city the same year. The plot is based on the historical figure of Rodrigo, who was the last Visigothic king of Hispania. The present delicious Passacaille (passacaglia) is part of the overture.

‘Bel piacere’ from Agrippina is wonderful. Agrippina was the second opera that Handel wrote whilst in Italy. It majors on ‘sex, intrigue, treachery, jealousy, revenge, and the lust for power’ which makes for a great and dramatic story. The setting is Ancient Rome, during Emperor’s Nero’s reign. However, the plot is really a cover for some contemporary political allusions and satire.

I enjoyed the Sonata for a Harpsichord with Double Keys in G Major, HWV 579 which is deemed to be from Handel’s Italian period. Presented as a ‘fantasia’ it may well be a ‘written up’ version of an improvisation that was subsequently used in a playing duel or 'flyte' between himself and Scarlatti. Apparently the result was a dead heat.

‘Un pensiero nemico di pace’ is an aria from the first part of Handel’s first allegorical oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a. It was composed in the spring of 1707 and was duly performed that summer. It is a bit of a morality tale insofar as the listener is enjoined to eschew sin and devote themselves to virtue and godliness. Time and Disillusionment are always on our backs. It is a vibrant, breathlessly-paced and downright exciting aria. The middle section, which is slower, is particularly touching.

I have never been a great fan of cantatas written for soloist, a few instruments and continuo. Yet with the present ‘Cuopre tal volta il cielo’, HWV 98 I can make a big exception. This work was composed in Naples in 1708, some years after the major earthquake (1626). The ‘plot’ of the cantata examines unrequited love and the haughty glances of his mistress. It begins by examining the point of view of a man at sea off the coast of Naples during a tempest. The poetical imagery reflects his troubled state of mind. The second recitative looks at similar emotions from the viewpoint of a shepherd witnessing thunder and lightning. The second aria allows the singer to ask his beloved for mercy: to appease the storms,

The range of the vocal part is considerable ranging from deep bass to baritone. There is drama here, which has an operatic intensity. The liner-notes sum this work up well: ‘As a musical painter of action, and emotion, especially in enormous tableaux, Handel was unmatched in his depictions of God as a creator and destroyer and of heaping up the waters of the sea. And here, as elsewhere, when Handel trembled and blew the musical world felt both the joy and terror of his music’.

I was a disappointed at the very short length of this CD: 43 minutes seems somewhat mean bearing in mind the number of works or extracts that could have been included.

London Early Opera was formally established in 2011 with the intention of not only performing and recording operas but also oratorios and cantatas. They specialise in exploring recently discovered material as well as creating imaginative programmes in a ‘historical context’. Their performance is buttressed by a series of lecture recitals and educational workshops. The LEO is conducted by Bridget Cunningham from the harpsichord.

The three soloists are related: Sophie and her sister Mary are sopranos who have both made a considerable name for themselves and Benjamin Bevan is their uncle. All make outstanding contributions to the CD.

The liner-notes, written by Bridget Cunningham are excellent. They give an introduction to Handel’s time in Italy, noting key personalities and events. Texts are included. Succeeding notes about each work provide extremely helpful information to the listener.

Signum Records have announced that ‘Handel in Italy’ Volume 2, ‘Handel in Vauxhall’ and ‘Handel in Ireland’ will be released in the near future. It is definitely something to look forward to, although I hope they will be a wee bit more generous in content and duration.

John France



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