Thursday, 21 March 2013

Hidden Handel - Ann Hallenberg - CD review

Hidden Handel - Ann Hallenberg, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis - NaiveV5326
Handel's revivals of his own operas are generally not given as much attention as his premieres. Mainly this is the right attitude, as his response to a revival was very often slash and burn and the changes he made were not guaranteed to be improvements. Changes came about because differing casts required new music or alteration to existing music; all performances were tailored to the voices and skills of the performers. Sometimes these changes are interesting, throwing up arias or groups of arias worth considering. Handel's re-writing of the role of Sesto in Giulio Cesare for tenor is a case in point; despite some fine music this version is never performed. On this disc the Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco perform a selection of arias written for performances of Rinaldo, Teseo, Amadigi Ottone, Admeto, Berenice, Alessandro and Pirro e Demetrio along with a selection of individual orchestral movements. Rather than an exercise in dry musicology, the results show Handel on strong form in sparkling performances from Hallenberg.

Not all the arias on the disc were written for revivals of the operas, one or two come from original versions but for one reason or another are not well known. Also, Curtis seems to have taken advantage of the disc to record alternative versions of arias from his complete recordings, but ten of the arias on the disc are work premiere recordings.

The disc opens with the first of three arias which Handel wrote for a revival of Alessandro Scarlatti's Pirro e Demetrio, the only time Handel wrote arias for insertion into an opera by another composer. Pirro e Demetrio was first performed in Naples in 1694 and reached London in 1708. By the time it was revived in 1716, not a lot of Alessandro Scarlatti was left and the castrato Niccolini (who created the title roles in Handel's Amadigi and Rinaldo) asked Handel to write the three arias for him to sing. 

Sento prima le procelle opens with a long held note in the vocal line, designed to show off Niccolini's messa di voce, though Hallenberg is rather too discreet here. Her middle and lower registers have quite a dark sound, with expressive if rather idiomatic passage-work and a good trill.

La crudele lontananza from Rinaldo was written for Anastasia Robinson in the role of Almira in the 1714-15 revival of Rinaldo. Robinson was no technical virtuoso, but was known for her powers of emotional expression and Handel gives ample scope for this. Hallenberg sings with a lovely fine sense of line; she is very poised but poignant and moving. The arias was written whilst Robinson was a soprano (illness seems to have caused her voice to drop in 1715), and Hallenberg displays great flexibility with a lovely clear top to her voice in this register. 

No, non cosi severe is the second of Handel's arias from Pirro e Demetrio. It is a perky, rather catchy number which Hallenberg sings with an admirably firm line. It is followed by the orchestral Hornpipe in C minor, a tuneful, lively piece which comes from a manuscript copied in 1732. It is related to the aria Furie son dell'alma mia from Partenope (1730). The final aria from Pirro e Demetrio is Vieni, o cara, e lieta in petto, another rather infectious number full of jaunty rhythms.

Handel's Ottone was premiered in 1723 with a cast including Anastasia Robinson as Matilda. By the time Handel revived the piece in 1726, Robinson had retired from the stage, having secretly married the Earl of Peterborough. So Handel remodelled the part for one Signora Constantini, who was probably a singer of comic intermezzi. She seems to have been a performer of considerable agility and verve. Handel wrote Vinto e l'amor for Constantini to sing in Ottone. Though it is not a fast aria, it requires considerable bravura, which Hallenberg contributes admirably with agility, verve and some lovely twiddly bits, all with a very crisp accompaniment from Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco.

Vieni, O cara was written for the 1717 revival of Rinaldo. By 1717 Robinson  was singing as an alto and this aria replace La crudele lontananza. Handel here uses very simple means; the opening ritornello is followed by a lovely unaccompanied phrase for the voice before the beautiful but quite stark aria starts in earnest. The piece is rather haunting with a very fine accompaniment. 

The Aria for Winds in F major is a rather perky piece. Handel's orchestration makes full use of the horns and it is great fun, the horn players of Il Complesso Barocco are clearly having a great time. The piece seems to have been composed in 1725 and is in da capo aria form. It may be an arrangement of a lost aria.

The recitative and aria Dimmi, crudele amore from Muzio Scevola are not so well known mainly because the opera was a collaborative effort with three different composers taking an act each. All agree that Handel's third act is tremendous, but its torso-like form prevent performances. The aria was originally composed for Handel's long-time collaborator Margherita Durastanti (they met in Rome in 1708 and she sang for him, on an off, until 1734).

The recitative begins just with continuo accompaniment but then Handel dramatically expands it to full orchestra. The aria is essentially a rage aria, but all is not bluster and Handel leaves dramatic gaps in the vocal line after repeated Dimmi (Tell me). The result is anxiously disjointed in a rather brilliant way and receives a terrific performance from Hallenberg and the ensemble.

The March in G major, with its lovely burbling oboes, may be connected to Handel's visit to Dublin in 1741-42 as the other side of the manuscript contains sketches for Messiah and an Irish folk-song.

Lusinga questo cor is from a manuscript of arias from 1713-17 and seems to have been composed for Amadigi (1715). It may have been composed for soprano Caterina Galerti who took over the role of Oriana when Anastasia Robinson fell ill. Galerti was adept at coloratura. A lovely up-tempo number, the aria is quite busy, full of attractive trilling adeptly done by Hallenberg.

Sa perche pena il cor is an alto aria dating from Handel's early years in London. It may be linked to Rinaldo or more possibly to Teseo. In his booklet note, John H Roberts suggests the aria be linked to an abortive revival of Teseo in 1716-17 when the role of Agilea would have been revised as an alto role for Anastasia Robinson. The piece is dark hued and sombre, but hauntingly tuneful. Hallenberg gives a profoundly moving performance and Il Complesso Barocco do full justice to Handel's rich orchestration. This is certainly an aria which deserves to be heard more.

The recitative and aria Faro cosi piu bella were written for Faustina Bordone to sing in the first performance Handel's Admeto  (1727). When Alan Curtis recorded the work he used a replacement aria which Handel wrote for Bordone for a benefit performance, so this aria has been recorded here.  Hanel gives the lyrical aria a lovely lilt. Hallenberg sings very affectingly with clear tone and fine sense of line.

The March in D major is a rather jolly trumpet tune which may have been intended for the 1734-35 season in one of the operas performed with Marie Salle's dance troupe.

Le vicende della sorte from Berenice (1737) has a rather complex history. It was written to come just before the final coro, but at a late stage Handel shortened the opera. He cut Si tra i cappi and re-worked Le vicende della sorte in its place. When Curtis recorded Berenice he kept Handel's cuts but reverted to the original version of Si tra i cappi so Le vicende della sorte is getting its first outing on disc. Burney described the aria as 'gay and pleasing' which is perfectly true.  And it is brilliantly done by Hallenberg with incisive accompaniment from Il Complesso Barocco.

The March in F major is rather a grand piece with horns. It comes from the same manuscript as the Aria in F major and uses the same scoring.

Hallenberg and the ensemble conclude with Rossane's act two aria from Handel's Alessandro (1726). After a lovely opening ritornello, which is richly scored, there is an extremely expressive accompagnato in which Rossane pours out her anguish. This leads not to an aria, but to a charming arioso in which Rossane keeps interrupting herself with recitative and gradually falls asleep. A highly imaginative piece given a superb performance.

There are so many fine pieces on this disc that I hope the recording gives impetus for them to be performed more often. All Handel lovers will want the disc not just for the material but for Hallenberg's superb performances. Able to move her voice from dark hued mezzo-soprano to clear soprano, she is totally idiomatic in each item. A powerful and affecting singer, she uses her technical prowess to characterise each aria. Her way with passagework is quite distinctive at times, but I certainly warmed to it.

The booklet includes full texts and translations, plus an extensive article by John H Roberts. Though as the article is arranged thematically rather than in the order that Hallenberg sings the aria, it can be sometimes tricky to tie up what you are hearing with what you are reading about.

Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco provide crisp, attentive accompaniment and provided beautiful, sonorous textures in Handel's more elaborately scored items. Curtis uses an ensemble which includes two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two horns and trumpet and you could imagine that some of the pieces sounded very fine indeed when Handel first performed them. Now we can hear them again.

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Sento prima le procelle (Pirro e Demetrio) (1716) **
La crudele lontananza (Rinaldo) (1714/15) **
No, non cosi severe (Pirro e Demetrio) (1716) **
Hornpipe in C minor (?1732) 
Vieni, o cara, e lieta in petto (Pirro e Demetrio) (1716) **
Vinto e l'amor da sdegnoe e gelosia (Ottone) (1726)
Vieni, o caro, che senza il tuo core (Rinaldo) (1717) **
Aria for winds in F major (?1725)
Dimmi, crudele amore (Muzio Scevola) (1721)
March in G major (?1741/42)
Lusinga questo cor (Amadigi) (1715) **
Sa perche pena il cor (Teseo) (1716/17) **
Faro cosi piu bella (Admeto) (1727) **
March in D major (1734/35) **
Le vicende della sorte (Berenice) (1737) **
March in F major 
Solitudini amate (Alessandro) (1726)
** World premiere recording
Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Il Complesso Barocco
Alan Curtis (conductor)

Recorded June and July 2010 at Lonigo, Italy
NAIVE V5326 1CD [71.00]

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