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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Handel in Rome 1707
Donna, che in ciel (HWV 233), cantata [28:27]
Ah! che troppo ineguali (HWV 230), cantata [10:16]
Dixit Dominus (HWV 232), motet [31:24]
Maria Espada, Rachel Redmond (soprano), Marta Fumagalli (contralto)
Ghieslieri Choir & Consort/Giulio Prandi
rec. live, 27 September 2014 at the Abbey of Ambronay, France (HWV 232); 14 May 2015 at the St. Alexander-Kirche, Einbeck, Germany (HWV 233); 16 May 2015 at the Aula Magna del Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia, Italy (HWV 230). DDD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88985 348422 [70:09]

George Frideric Handel's Italian sojourn is well documented and his compositions from this period are frequently performed. That certainly goes for his setting of Dixit Dominus, one of the most dramatic sacred works from his oeuvre. However, in many cases we don't know exactly why he wrote them and at which occasions they were first performed. That has resulted in much speculation. It has been suggested, for instance, that Dixit Dominus was written for a performance of the Vespers as part of the celebrations of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel by the Carmelite order in Rome, but there seems to be no firm evidence of that. The two other compositions are less well-known and the fact that their texts are in Italian indicates that they were not performed in a liturgical context. In the liner-notes to the present recording, Raffaela Mellace follows suggestions by the German musicologist Juliane Riepe in a book from 2013.

The programme opens with Donna, che in ciel, a cantata for soprano, choir, strings and basso continuo. It is the only piece in this programme which indicates the occasion for which it was composed. It was performed as part of the celebrations organised to render thanks for "the deliverance of Rome from the earthquake" that had devastated central Italy in 1703. This was attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and that explains why she takes a central place in the text. The cantata opens with a French overture, followed by a recitative which begins with the words "Lady - you who shine so radiantly in heaven, you who with your light make the world shine so vividly, today is that blessed day on which you saved us from great peril". The ensuing aria describes the trembling of the earth. This is continued in the next accompanied recitative. Then follows an aria which praises Mary as "the beautiful, peaceful star" and asks for her help. The third aria contrasts Mary's "divine light" with the "black flames of everlasting fury". Another recitative leads to the closing aria in which the soprano is surprisingly joined by a five-part choir, which salutes Mary as the "salvation and hope of the suffering world".

The next piece is closely connected to this cantata. Ah che troppo ineguali comprises a short recitative and a single aria for soprano, strings and basso continuo. Here Mary is hailed as "the star of peace" and she is urged to "turn your glance down to us mortals". The liner-notes inform us that this piece was sung by the male soprano Pasqualino Tiepoli during a concert in August 1707 organised by the Chancellery of Cardinal Ottoboni for the feast of the Assumption. During this extra-liturgical 'rite', nine arias by different composers were sung by two singers. "The 'rite' made precise reference to the then current events: Mary, the Queen of Peace, was invoked while the Spanish War of Succession was raging (...) and Ottoboni's pro-Bourbon party had experienced stinging defeats with losses (...) that were to put an end to centuries-old Spanish rule in Italy".

It is not known for which occasion Handel composed his Dixit Dominus. The liner-notes suggest that he started the composition when he was still in Germany. If that is correct he can't have written it for the Carmelite Vespers to which I referred above. Handel connects the past with the present: it is scored for five voices - two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass - and five-part strings, with split violas - a practice common in the 17th century. Most of the verses are for the tutti but include solo episodes which in most performances are sung by members of the choir, as is also the case here. On the other hand, the dramatic setting of some of the verses - especially those about the Lord's wrath - and the operatic traces in the solo sections point in the direction of the increasingly theatrical treatment of sacred texts in the course of the 18th century. There are only three solo sections: 'Virgam virtutis tuae' is for alto, 'Tecum principium' for soprano and the lyrical 'De torrente' is a duet for two sopranos.

These solos are nicely sung by Maria Fumagalli and Rachel Redmond respectively whereas Mara Corazza and Karin Selva deliver a good performance of the duet. At some moments Ms Fumagalli uses too much vibrato. The choir sings the tutti very well and there is no lack of drama here, but sometimes - for instance the opening of Dixit Dominus - the sharp edges are a bit exaggerated. However, the star of this disc is Maria Espada. She is simply brilliant in the two Italian cantatas. The first aria of Donna, che in ciel receives an energetic performance and the lyricism of the second aria comes off perfectly. The plea for help to the Virgin Mary has much urgency and is sung with great incisiveness.

The Dixit Dominus is one of Handel's best-known sacred works and available in various recordings. The two Italian cantatas are far less common; they are the main attraction of this disc, also thanks to Maria Espada's performances. No Handel aficionado should miss it.

Johan van Veen



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