Wednesday 8 January 2020

Handel Uncaged: chamber cantatas revealed in new context by Lawrence Zazzo on Inventa

Handel: Udite il mio consiglo, Stanco di piu soffrire, Figli del mesto cor, Amore uccellatore Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor), Jonathan Manson (cello & viola da gamba), Andrew Maginley (theorbo & guitar), Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord) INVENTA
Handel Uncaged - Cantatas for Alto
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 January 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Two world premiere recordings and the re-discovery of a cantata sequence puts his music from his Italian sojourn into a new context

Handel: Udite il mio consiglo, Stanco di piu soffrire, Figli del mesto cor, Amore uccellatore
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor), Jonathan Manson (cello & viola da gamba), Andrew Maginley (theorbo & guitar), Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord)

Handel wrote a considerable quantity of cantatas, music which is still not always as well known as it should be. Whilst the larger scale works with instrumental/orchestral accompaniment are recorded, many of the smaller scale ones are ignored. Perhaps part of the problem is that this is chamber music rather than something on a larger scale.

Handel in 1710
Handel in 1710
Handel's chamber cantatas, for just voice and continuo, were larger written during his Italian sojourn (1707-1710) for patrons, very much as a transaction. For instance, Handel produced cantatas on a regular basis for Marchese Ruspoli in Rome in return for board and lodging. The cantatas would be performed at the weekly conversazione that the patrons held. The texts of these cantatas can be lighter, and more risqué, than anything Handel set later and in a couple of cases where he re-used a cantata in London the text was sanitised.

Marchese Ruspoli was instrumental in the development of the Arcadian Academy where each member took a pastoral pseudonym. The Academy (all male of course) met at one of Ruspoli's villas and it was at this sort of weekly gathering that Handel's cantatas would be performed. Another of Handel's Roman patrons, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni loved 'pomp, prodigalilty and sensual pleasure'; besides his numerous mistresses he surrounded himself with a coterie of talented male and generally homosexual artists, including Arcangelo Corelli.

The young Handel was very talented, personable (forget the image of the middle-aged glutton) and seemingly quite able to cope with the flirtatious attraction of his patrons; he would later refer to Cardinal Pamphilij as 'a flattering old fool'. And he may have had a relationship with the singer Vittoria Tarquini who, it turns out, was the mistress of Handel's Florentine patron Ferdinando de Medici. It is into this slightly hot-house atmosphere of privilege that Handel's cantatas come.

This new disc on the Inventa label (Resonus Classics' new label specialising in Early Music) recontextualises some of the cantatas and reveals a degree of modern detective work. A chance remark from Handel scholar, John Roberts, to counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, after a performance of Handel's alto cantata Vedendo Amor led Zazzo to discover the existence of a manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge which puts the cantata into a wider context, creating a dramatic sequence of cantatas.

The manuscript had been largely ignored because, though some cantatas in it are acknowledged in Handel's autographs, other cantatas are not leading to suspicions about the composers. But recent scholarship has found links between the music and other works by Handel so the balance is now coming to favour Handel as the composer of all the cantatas.
So the Fitzwilliam Manuscript gives us a cantata sequence putting Vedendo amor, with its evocation of dark forests, torch-bearing women, earth-pellet shooting cherubs and a narrator who finishes the cantata in a cage, into context as part three of a longer drama making more sense of its ending. Quite whether, where or how this cantata sequence, Amore ucellatore was performed, we do not know. Handel wrote for other patrons in Rome besides Ruspoli, including Cardinal Ottoboni and Cardinal Pamhilij. Zazzo suggests perhaps the sequence might have been performed in weekly instalments, or a single sitting with gaps for refreshments. Whatever, we can be sure it was highly civilised!

The text is witty and risqué, involving a narrator who is a male bird pursued by five women and Cupid. He is captured and escapes three times, finally losing his tail (double entendre intended) at which point his pursuers decide he is no longer desirable!

The sequence is written for just voice and continuo, here Lawrence Zazzo with Jonathan Manson (cello and viola da gamba), Andrew Maginley (theorbo and guitar) and Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord). But how to present it for a modern audience on disc? Zazzo has opted to add instrumental interludes from Handel's other repertoire thus giving us a dramatic sequence that charms, entertains and delights. I did wonder whether the piece might work in a staging? Certainly the chance to hear Handel in this lighter mode should not be restricted to us nerds. [If you are interested in exploring Handel's cantatas further I can recommend Ellen T. Harris' book Handel as Orpheus: voice and desire in the chamber cantatas which discusses all the chamber cantatas and puts them into fascinating context.]

For the remainder of the disc, Zazzo has continued his explorations. He has taken a hint in the manuscript of cantata Stanco di piu soffrire and paired it with Figli deli mesti so that the abandoned lover in the first gets to lament in second, with a linked improvisation from Guillermo Brachetta. And we start with another of Handel's Italian cantatas, Udie il mio consiglio,  recording for the first time Handel's shortened version produced for Marchese Ruspoli in May 1707.

The four performers give us a sophisticated and richly varied entertainment. This is far more than music for solo voice, and all four bring out its chamber nature with the three instruments adding a nice array of timbres.

Zazzo clearly loves this music and he makes and engaging story-teller. A considerable amount of scholarship has gone into this recording, but what really comes over in performance is the engagement and sense of delight from the performers. And the title? Lawrence Zazzo says in his erudite and engaging booklet essay 'Handel Uncaged is primarily an attempt to re-contextualise Handel's cantatas, taking them out of their small musical 'cages' for modern performance, inviting performers to be more flexible in their presentation and thus making his cantatas come alive in non-original settings.'

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Udite il mio consiglo HWV 172 (Ruspoli version)
George Frideric Handel - Stanco di piu soffrire HWV 167a
Guillermo Brachetta (after Handel) - improvisation
George Frideric Handel - Figli del mesto cor HWV 112
George Frideric Handel - Amore ucellatore HWV 176/175
George Frideric Handel - Allegro & Adagio, Suite in F major, HWV 427
George Frideric Handel - Sonatina in G major, HWV 582
George Frideric Handel - Largo, Sonata in G minor HWV 364b
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)
Jonathan Manson (cello & viola da gamba)
Andrew Maginley (theorbo & guitar)
Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord)
Recorded in The New Maltings, Alpheton, Suffolk, 2-3 November 2018
INVENTA INV1002 1CD [74.26]
Available from Amazon.

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