Thursday, 13 March 2014

Rokoko - Opera Arias by Johann Adolf Hasse

Rokoko - Decca 478 6418
Rokoko - opera arias by Johann Adolf Hasse: Max Emanuel Cencic, George Petrou, Armonia Atenea: DECCA
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Virtuoso playing and singing on this disc of arias by the undeservedly neglected Hasse

The composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) was associated with the Italian opera seria for much of the 18th century, but since his death his works have rather gone into the shadows. Whilst a Hasse revival cannot be said to be quite happening, his works are steadily becoming known and now counter-tenor Max Emanuel Cencic has recorded a disc of choice arias from Hasse's operas, accompanied by George Petrou and Armonia Atenea on Decca. There are eleven arias, from nine operas spanning the years 1729 to 1774 along with Hasse's Mandolin Concerto,  fine introduction to the work of this composer.

In many ways the career of Hasse shadowed that of Handel, some 14 years his senior. Hasse too worked at the opera in Hamburg and also made the journey to Italy for further study, finally settling in Naples. Here he diverged from Handel's path and converted to Roman Catholicism, which would have made him eligible for the role of kapellmeister in one of Europe's Roman Catholic Courts. He was officially based at the court of Saxony in Dresden from 1730 to 1763, but Hasse's operas became ubiquitous. A profitable relationship with the librettist Metastasio developed with Hasse eventually setting the poet's texts complete and unchanged. Hasse was renowned for his writing for the voice, writing music both fitting and challenging for the voice; with Hasse writing the music singers knew they would have something to show themselves off to the best advantage.


Cencic sings with warm, vibrato-laden tones and well rounded sound, quite a long distance from the clean edge and pure lines of counter-tenors like Robin Blaze and Iestyn Davies. It is a sound that, at its best sound vibrant and exciting, and he clearly brings a superb technical skill to all of the arias; there is a lot of busy, challenging music here, sung with great aplomb. My main complaint is that, as with some other high counter-tenors on disc recently, the recording does not catch his upper voice at its best. There is a degree of glare and wildness to it which I suspect does not happen in real life.

Cencic and Petrou open with Notte amica  (Friendly night) from the 1774 oratorio Il cantico de tre fanciulli (Canticle of the three youths). As with many of the arias, there is a long orchestral introduction, here with some lovely mellow oboes. Cencic sings with a lovely well modulated, even tone making the aria expressive and affecting.  In the faster section, his passagework is not the most even, but he makes the drama vivid.

Cadro ma quai si mira (I shall fall) is from the 1730 opera Arminio. This is a brilliant up-tempo number complete with horns. A simile aria (about falling like an uprooted spruce) which Hasse sets as a rather martial number with lots of fast and vivid runs from Cencic, though it all gets a bit wild at times. La sorted mia tiranna (My tyrannous destiny) from Siroe (1763) is the first setting of Metastasio on the disc. After a characterful introduction we get a lovely lyrical piece with Cencic giving a nice attention to the detail of the passing notes in his part.

One thing to note is the sheer length of some of these arias, Cencic and Petrou show admirable skill not only in the technical details but in the sustaining of an aria over a span of nearly 10 minutes.

Sesto's aria from Tito Vespasiano (1735, libretto by Metastasio) Opprimete i contumaci (Oh gods, crush those who rebel) is an amazing number, designed to show-off which it does brilliantly, especially at Petrou's brisk tempo. The libretto for Tito Vespasiano is the one which, much altered, would be set by Mozart in La Clemenza di Tito. There rather a Handelian cast to aria Siam navi all'onde algenti (We are ships left to founder) from Aminta (1756, Metastasio). Though Handel was influenced by his younger contemporaries in some of his later operas, and produced pasticcios based on their works, the traffic was not always one way. After all Hasse married Francesca Cuzzoni, one of Handel's prima donnas.  Both Cencic and the orchestra give a wonderfully intense performance here. Thankfully things get gentler in the next aria, the lovely Ma rendi pur contento (Restore happiness) from Ipermestra (1751, Metastasio), though the vocal line is still quite elaborate.

Hasse's Mandolin Concerto exists in various sources, though only one has it credited to a mandolin and the edition used for this recording is a composite one which tries to show the various different editions. The work is charming and shows Hasse responding to the challenge of such a quiet instrument. The opening movement is perky but it is obvious that balance is a bit of challenge. In the slow middle movement, the accompaniment is reduced to just pizzicato, and there are some fascinating textures. The finale is a lovely triple time dance.

De folgori di Giove (By Jupiter's thunderbolts) from Il trionfo di Clelia (1762, Metastasio) is all fast brio, with rasping horns and a bravura turn from Cencic (though with a rather wild cadenza). Se un tenero affetto (If the ungrateful wretch) from La spartana generosa  (1747) is less driven but even here there are lots of runny bits.  Dei di Roma (Gods of Rome) also from Il trionfo di Clelia is a graceful gallant number which shows Cencic up at his stylish best.

Solca il mar e nel periglio (As he ploughs the sea) from Tigrane (1729), yet another simile aria (I rather lost count of the number on the disc), but again given with superb brio by Cencic. Finally Vo disperato a morte (Despairing, I go to my death) is also from Tito Vespasiano and has an almost sturm-und-drang feel to it.

Now here I have to admit something, whilst I appreciated the skill that went into many of these arias and especially the performances, Hasse's writing just does not for me surpass that of Handel. For a start, there are no ear-worms the way Handel was able to create them, you don't come out humming many of the tunes pleasant though they are. Also the reliance on simile arias is rather indicative, the arias never seem to really get down to the character of the person singing them. In this respect the CD booklet hardly helps; though there is plenty of background on Hasse and his music (and full texts and translations), we are not given the dramatic context for the arias.

There are also slightly too many show off type numbers on the disc, and I think that Cencic and Petrou would have been wise to include a few simpler numbers. About two thirds of the way through I started to get blase and think of plainer things.

Hasse is essential listening for anyone interested in mid-18th century culture. He was part of one of the mid-centuries power couples (think Andrew Lloyd Webber married to Madonna), and his operas were all over. As a marker of their scarcity nowadays, seven of the arias on this disc are receiving there first recording.  They were popular with singers and audiences alike (you only have to read Charles Burney to get a feel for that). They are also technically challenging and for all my caveats Cencic and Petrou take the notes and run with them, creating real music from them.

Don't let the rather gaudy CD cover put you off; you will listen and marvel.

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Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Notte amica [09:45]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Cadro ma qual si mira [05:43]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - La sorte mia tiranna [06:22]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Opprimete i contumaci [04:13]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Siam navi all'onde [03:05]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Ma rendi pur contento [07:50]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Concerto for mandoline in G major [08:09]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - De'folgori di giove [04:20]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Se un tenero affetto [02:55]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Dei di Roma [04:15]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Solca il mar [04:11]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Vo disperato a morte [03:31]
Max Emmauel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Theodoros Kitsos (mandolin)
Armonia Atena
George Petrou (conductor)
Recorded Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, the Athens Concert Hall, Athens 5-14 July 2013
DECCA 478 6418 1CD [64.25]

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