Thursday 10 September 2015

Handel in Italy, volume one

Handel in Italy - Signum - London Early Opera
Handel in Italy; Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Bevan, London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 29 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Ambitious survey of Handel's music written in Italy

Having given us Handel in Ireland (see my review), harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham directs her group London Early Opera in the first of two discs on Signum Classics entitled Handel in Italy. Joined by sopranos Sophie Bevan and Mary Bevan, and baritone Benjamin Bevan (two sisters and an uncle), they present an overview of Handel's composing activities in Italy, sacred, secular, operatic and instrumental. It is a big subject and Cunningham can only give us a taster, but she manages to cover most of Handel's activities in Italy with the Gloria, music from Rodrigo, Agrippina and Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, the Sonata for a Harpsichord with double keys in G major and the cantata Cuopre tal volta il cielo.

Handel's stay in Italy from 1707 to 1710 was a remarkably fertile period for the young composer (aged 22 to 25 during the period, and moderately handsome if the surviving image is anything to go by). Rather than taking a musical position he was guest of aristocratic patrons and produced a remarkable variety of music which he would use as source material throughout his career. The disc includes an aria from his first oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) which was re-written has his final English oratorio in the 1750's.

We start with the Gloria, rediscovered in the Royal Academy of Music in 2001. It was probably written in Rome in 1707, for the church on the country estate of Handel's patron Marchese Ruspoli. It is a six movement work for virtuoso soprano, Sophie Bevan, and orchestra (without violas) and alternates bravura fast movements with lovely slow ones, the fifth in particular sees Sophie Bevan beautifully limpid and with finish with an Alleluia which is certainly impressive with Sophie Bevan showing fine technical control and bravura pizzaz at Bridget Cunningham's brisk tempo.

Rodgrigo (Vincer se stesso e la maggior vittoria) is one of Handel's earliest surviving operas, and his earliest one written in Italy (in 1707 for Florence). Here we hear the Passacaille from the overture, a graceful dance-like piece which combines a solo violin part (in the Italian concerto style) with rather a French free. Handel's second opera for Italy, Agrippina was premiered in Venice in 1709. The plot is full of sex, intrigue and treachery, setting a strong libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Here we hear Poppea's short but delightful aria Bel piacere, here sung with characterful accuracy and great charm by Mary Bevan.

The title of Handel's Sonata for a Harpsichord with double keys in G major is slightly confusing. It actually refers to a two manual harpsichord which were relatively rare in Italy during the period. Handel may have written the piece for a patron curious to have one shown off. But then again, it may date from Handel's earlier Hamburg period. However it is a fine example of his keyboard skills (he was also a fine improviser). It is a single movement fantasia (which was later reused as an aria in his first London opera, Rinaldo). It is a busy, full textured work which Bridget Cunningham plays with a nice clarity and gives a great feel of developing excitement.

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was Handel's first Italian oratorio, written for Rome in 1707 (at a time when opera was banned there) and setting an allegorical libretto by Cardinal Pamphili. Here were hear Mary Bevan sings Un pensiero nemico di pace, an aria from part one for the character of Belleza (Beauty) with a brilliantly vivid A section contrasting with a lovely lyrical B section.

Finally we hear the bass cantata Cuopre tal volta in cielo (This time an unforseen dark cloud covers the sky), written for the bass Antonio Manna who sang in the premiere of the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo in Naples. He had a wide range and the cantata exploits it. The text describes a fierce storm and begs God for his mercy. Opening with a strong accompagnato, the first aria is busy with Benjamin Bevan's robust, vigorous baritone complemented by perkily rhythmic strings. A recitative leads to the lovely intimate final aria, with its elaborated multi-line accompaniment. Rather understated, it is not quite what we expect at the end of a cantata but here is finely performed by Benjamin Bevan, Bridget Cunningham and ensemble.

The CD booklet contains full texts and translations along with a substantial article from Bridget Cunningham elucidating both the musical and historical background.

This is a slightly short disc at 43' and I look forward to the second volume. But Bridget Cunningham and her performers certainly succeed in bringing out both the virtuosity and variety of Handel's Italian period.

Handel in Italy, volume one
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Gloria
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Passacaille from Rodrigo
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Bel piacere from Agrippina
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Sonata for a Harpsichord with double keys in G major
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Un penisero nemico di pace from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Cuopre tal volta in cielo
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Benjamin Bevan (baritone)
London Early Opera
Bridget Cunningham (conductor and harpsichord)

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