Handel – Italian Cantatas

0 of 5 stars

Tu fedel? tu costante?, HWV171
Mi palpita il cor, HWV132b
Alpestre monte, HWV81
Tra le fiamme, HWV170

Emma Kirkby (soprano)

Academy of Ancient Music [Michel Piguet (oboe & recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Charles Medlam (viola da gamba) & Jane Coe (cello continuo)]
Christopher Hogwood (harpsichord)

Recorded in December 1984 in St Barnabas, North Finchley, London

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: October 2006
476 7468
Duration: 55 minutes

It’s good to see these clean, remarkably poised performances of four of Handel’s secular cantatas back in the catalogue. In the more than twenty years since their initial release on the L’Oiseau Lyre label, the ‘Early Music’ scene has changed substantially, with a shift back to fuller voices, liberal (if carefully controlled) use of vibrato and more tone colour and timbre across the board. And yet these incisive readings, more presentative than performative, more Apollonian than Dionysian, are as compelling as ever.

There are around 25 extant secular cantatas by Handel for solo voice, continuo and other instruments, whether obbligato or accompanying, as distinct from the many secular cantatas for voice (solo or duet) and continuo alone. This form of cantata was popular in Rome during Handel’s sojourn there (1706-1710), largely due to a papal ban on opera. The composition and performance of these ‘mini-operas’ (like operas, they usually comprised arias linked by recitatives; unlike operas, they were essentially dramatic monologues) at the homes of wealthy patrons provided an alternative, if less extravagant, creative outlet.

Handel wrote “Tu fedel? tu costante?” (soprano, two violins and basso continuo) in 1707 for one of his patrons in Rome, the Marchese Ruspoli; two arias from it were later re-used in “Rodrigo” (with different words), as well as some of its melodic material for the final chorus of “Alexander’s Feast”. Here Kirkby portrays a woman refusing her inconstant lover with a mixture of resoluteness and intelligence, making the most of the expressive freedom afforded by the recitatives to offset the more controlled yet highly attractive arias.

“Mi palpita il cor” (the version recorded here is for soprano, oboe and basso continuo) comes from Handel’s early years in England; much of its material was later re-used as well – for example, in ‘Then long eternity’ from “Samson”. Kirkby as a lovelorn Chloris matches her tone with that of Michel Piguet’s oboe to perfection. The effect is almost balletic.

“Alpestre monte” (soprano, two violins and basso continuo) is probably from Handel’s Italian period, as is “Tra le fiamme” (soprano, two oboes or, as on this recording, two recorders, two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo). The former sees Kirkby again adopt the persona of a young man in love, while the latter’s richer scoring affords more scope for expression from all concerned, with Kirkby’s soprano thrown into sharp relief by the strings, recorders and gamba.

Throughout, Hogwood’s direction from the harpsichord maintains a precise yet supple ensemble.

The recorded sound is excellent, especially the balance; the original booklet notes by Anthony Hicks are clear and informative. At Eloquence’s bargain price, this is not to be missed.

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