Sunday, 13 April 2014

Troppo cruda, troppo fiera - Handel duets at the Grosvenor Chapel

Oxford Baroque
Oxford Baroque
Troppo Cruda, Troppo Fiera: Robyn Allegra Parton, Raffaele Pe, Oxford Baroque: London Handel Festival at the Grosvenor Chapel
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 12 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Delightful programme of Handel's rarely performed chamber duets

Robyn Allegra Parton
Robyn Allegra Parton
Handel wrote Italian chamber duets throughout his life, returning to the form at various periods though the majority date from his Italian trip or earlier. But these delightful works remain under appreciated, more famous perhaps for the fact that Handel re-used material from them for Messiah than in their own right. Oxford Baroque, with soprano Robyn Allegra Parton and counter-tenor Raffaele Pe brought a programme of Handel's duets and cantatas to the London Handel Festival, at the Grosvenor Chapel on Saturday 12 April.

Raffaele Pe
Raffaele Pe
Handel's duets are a distinct form from his chamber cantatas, in the duets the two voices sing continuously both with the same text, rather than answering each other in arias as in the multi-voice chamber cantatas. They are designed for private performance and one can imagine Handel accompanying a pair of star singers in the salons of his various employers and patrons in Hanover, Italy and London. Of the ones performed by Oxford Baroque, most were early and may date to Handel's period in Hanover, whilst Se tu non lasci amore dates from his London period.

The Grosvenor Chapel does not provide a large performing area, but these are chamber pieces after all. Soprano Robyn Allegra Parton and counter-tenor Raffaele Pe were accompanied by David Gerrard on harpsichord, Richard Mackenzie on lute and baroque guitar and Gavin Kibble on cello.


The subject matter almost always deals with love, generally in a pastoral context; partly because of the conventions of much of the poetry, but also partly through the influence of the Italian arcadian academies which Handel's patrons were part of. But the emotions expressed, at least in Handel's works, are anything but artificial and the duets continue to delight and move an audience. In structure the duets are generally two part, with two faster sections linked by a slower recitative-like passage. In all of them, we are encouraged to appreciate the way the two voices work together. Though it made dramatic sense to have them sung by a woman and a man, the 18th century Italians would not have been so bothered and performances by two women or by a woman and a castrato would have been the norm (it was not uncommon for soprano castratos to take women's roles in Italy).

The group opened with Conservate, raddopiate HWV185 with Raffale Pe's lovely warm, well modulated counter-tenor voice blending well with Robyn Allegra Parton's strong lyric soprano. Pe's counter-tenor had a soft grain to it, but his vibrato was thankfully quite discreet. Parton's voice had a brightly vibrant quality. In the duet we had a lovely intertwining of voices, with some technically strong moments in the faster sections but though the two soloists showed a nice musical interaction there was little dramatic sense of them singing to each other. Sono liete, fortunate HWV 194 opened with a gently intertwining melody, and some nicely pointed words. The slower middle section was more dramatic with lovely chromatic harmony, and the final section completed with some superb passagework.

Next came the only non-Handel work in the programme a suite for guitar by Ludovico Roncolli, an Italian nobleman who published a collection of suites for five-course baroque guitar, Capricci armonici sopra la chitarra spagnola (Harmonic caprices for the Spanish guitar), in 1692. Played by Richard Mackenzie, the suite we heard proved to be very much a delightful selection of courtly dances, but with some Spanish-influenced moments and with deft fingerwork from Mackenzie.

In the 1709 cantata Sento che le ristretto the poet imagines himself a brook running down to the ample sea of his beloved's breast. Raffaele Pe introduced the work and explained how such cantatas could be coded messages to the commissioner's lover. After a vivid recitative, we had a lyrically attractive aria with a prominent cello part in which the murmuring of the waves was evoked.  The aria was performed with accompaniment from just cello and lute, making it more intimate. Pe's ornamentation in the da capo included a nice use of passing notes. After another dramatic recitative, in which running passages evoked the flow of the brook we had a more up-tempo aria. The rather busy accompaniment was complemented by a lyrical vocal line, with Pe giving us a performance which was both technically adroit and dramatically involving.

Robyn Allegra Parton then sang Belleza's final aria Tu del ciel ministro elletto from Handel's oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno HWV 46a which was performed in Rome in 1707. A slow lyric number, which Parton sang with a lovely feel for the line and a wonderful intentness of purpose, plus great beauty of tone.

The first half finished with the duet Troppo cruda, troppo fiera HWV198 which gave the recital its title. The opening section was busily vivid, with long lines of passagework including both voices in thirds. Both singers are admirably proficient and produced lovely even passagework, making the piece a great delight. A slower dramatic section led to a big boned canonic finale. This was well performed, but I did wonder whether the performers were being a little too nice, and should have shown a bit more fiery temperament. The text, after all was about being set alight and firing arrows.

They opened the second half with the duet, A mirarvi io son intento HWV 178. Both performers seemed to have relaxed and there was a far greater sense of them singing to each other. Their strong vocal techniques combining in the luscious intertwining of voices in the first section. The slower middle section had some lovely expressive suspensions and chromatic harmony. The final part was again a tour-de-force of passage work, but here the singers gave us some highly vivid word painting as the text talks about quivering from the blow of an arrow, and being devoured by love.

Handel published his eight suites for keyboard, Suites du Pieces pour le Clavecin in 1720, mainly to prevent pirate versions of the pieces. They reflect his own prowess at the keyboard and are another form of chamber entertainment, as Handel would play these in the salon's of the London aristocracy and Royalty.  David Gerrard played the Suite No. 8 in F minor HWV 433. The opening Prelude was sober and sombre with Gerrard giving a strong feel of the movements improvisatory nature. In the following fugue his playing was beautifully crisp and even, with the movement combining perky melodic felicity with Germanic fugal construction. The easy flowing Allemande was hardly a dance, and Handel's use of arpeggio figures had a very French feel. There was more elegant and even fingerwork in the rather runny Courante, with a rather toe-tapping Gigue for the finale.

The cantata Parti, l'idolo mio is one that is undated (the autograph does not survive). In it the lover has been deserted and she sinks into despair, her it was sung by Robyn Allegra Parton. She opened with a finely dramatic recitative, leading to the first aria which was accompanied just be cello and baroque guitar. The aria is full of melodic felicity, and Parton sang with a combination of charm and a lovely sense of line, but she made it expressive through the music. The piece suited very much her lightly flexible yet vibrant voice. The following recitative was both dramatic and highly bravura. The final aria was steadier than you might have expected, but with a very strikingly characterful vocal line which Parton made tell beautifully.

The duet Se tu non lasci amore dates from Handel's London period and we can imagine a pair of his star singers performing it in some aristocrat's house to provide a sampling of the delights to come in the forthcoming opera season. Parton and Pe had clearly relaxed into the performance and gave us a highly characterful interaction throughout the duet. The text speaks of not being able to bear the pain of parting and the final section, in triple time, had the striking effect of both voices in tandem but then one or other would keep breaking away and disturbing the texture.

The final item on the programme was Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi another of Handel's early duets . The opening section had a lovely infectiousness to the rhythm, particularly in the accompaniment, with the soloists providing us with some vividly projected runs. Here, there was a clear sense of the performers making the music their own, in the very best sense. A short sensual slower passage full of suspensions lead to the lively finale. Despite the bravura nature of the writing both performers seemed to be having fun, and so were we.

We were treated to an encore, a repeat of the first section of Troppo cruda, troppo fiera.

Throughout the three instrumentalists provided fine and characterful support with cellist Gavin Kibble often taken a third part in the action, creating a trio-like atmosphere.

This was a delightful and intelligent programme, showcasing some fine performances of some of Handel's more undeservedly neglected repertoire.
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