Monday 31 May 2021

Handel the young Italian: Ensemble Marsyas in chamber music and duets from the composer's early years

Handel as a young man, c1710 (Handel-Haus, Halle)
Handel as a young man, c1710
(Handel-Haus, Halle)

Handel Trio sonatas, chamber duets, Amarilli Vezzosa; Louise Alder, Christopher Lowrey, Peter Whelan & Ensemble Marsyas; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 May 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An vividly engaging programme of early Handel from trio sonatas to Italian chamber duets

Ensemble Marsyas, director Peter Whelan, brought a lovely programme of Handel chamber music to the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 29 May 2021, with two trio sonatas, and a bassoon sonata, and were joined by soprano Louise Alder and counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey for two of the Italian chamber duets and the cantata, Amarilli Vezzosa (Il Duello Amoroso).

The programme was very much an exploration of early Handel and whilst dates for some of the works are a little vague, all but one of the pieces dated from 1712 or before, thus we are exploring music written by Handel in Hanover (the chamber duets), Italy (the cantata) and his early years in London. Of course, this is not precise as he was notorious for re-using material so the Hanover chamber duets were copied out in 1711 and may have been written earlier. 

We began with the Sinfonia in B flat HWV 339 which may well date to Handel's years in Hamburg (1704-1706). This introduced us to the vividly engaging and energised playing of the ensemble, violins Sarah Sexton and Michael Gurevich, cello Sarah McMahon, and theorbo Sergio Bucheli directed from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan. The sinfonia was in three movements, fast slow fast, very Italianate in style and in both the fast and slow movements really enjoying the interplay of the two violins.

Next came the first of the chamber duets, Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi HWV 197, with Louise Alder and Christopher Lowrey accompanied by Whelan, McMahon and Bucheli. These duets were written for chamber performance, for Handel's talented aristocratic patrons to perform with the composer accompanying whether it be Italian aristocrats or the Princesses in Hanover. Handel wrote two batches of these duets, one in Italy and one in Hanover, and then surprisingly returned to the genre in London years later. HWV 197 was probably written in Hanover and like most of these duets features music reused later. 

This is real chamber music, with Handel almost creating a trio sonata for two voices, enjoying the interplay of the two upper 'instruments'. The texts are largely seductive and erotic, but we get little of the dramatic interplay between two characters, instead a lovely exploration of vivid textures. This music might have been written for non-professionals but that doesn't mean it is simple. The first section was vividly virtuoso with some terrific, fast passage-work then the luscious interlacing of the two voices in the slow section before the bravura fugal section (re-used many years later in Solomon).

Next came the Trio Sonata in G minor HWV 393 which dates from around 1719, and is one of the ones published in Handel's Opus 2 which was largely a pirate publication by John Walsh in the 1730s and we often don't have autograph manuscripts for these pieces which means knowing when, where and for whom they were written is tricky. In four movements, slow fast slow fast, we began with a very seductive sound-world with a second movement full of irrepressible energy, then lovely textures in the Largo with the two violins really sparking off each other in the final Allegro. But though the music did feature the upper two instruments, this was real chamber music with strong contributions from all five and sense of collegial activity.

For the second chamber duet we had Conservate, raddopiate HWV 185 which also dates from the Hanover period. In two sections this time, the first graceful, the second fast and vivid with both singers enjoying the luxury of so much time singing together, timing fast runs and relishing the slow resolution of dissonances. Completely gorgeous, and you wonder why this music is not performed more often

Next came Handel's Bassoon Sonata in F, Opus 1 No. 11 HWV 369, where Peter Whelan switched to the bassoon, accompanied by theorbo and cello. The sonata was published as another of John Walsh's pirate publications, this time of solo sonatas. The one performed was a version of a flute sonata, with Peter Whelan following a suitably 18th-century practice and appropriating the music for another instrument. Its four movement, slow fast slow fast, form is belied by the markings where the first movement is Grave and the third is Alla Siciliana. It is worth remembering that the instrument Whelan was playing had little in the way of metal work, just one (I think) key to assist the player, all the rest was the work of fingers. Yet you soon forgot this technical challenge in the warm, nutty sound and Whelan's lovely fluid tone, making the instrument sing in the first movement. The first Allegro went with something of a swing whilst there was an expressive lyricism to the Siciliana, with a delightful sense of character in the final movement.

The last work on the programme featured all the performers on stage for the first time, violins and singers, plus the three continuo instruments. Amarilli Vezzosa (Il Duello Amoroso) BWV 82 was written for Rome in 1708 with the soprano part sung by Margherita Durastanti, who would sing a lot for Handel in London, and the alto part sung by the castrato Pasqualino (who also sang in the premiere of Handel's La resurrezione the same year). The work is a somewhat curious one, neither character is very sympathetic, the flirtily seductive Amarillis (Louise Alder) seems to have once pledged herself to Daliso (Christopher Lowrey) but changed her mind. He mopingly encounters her in a wood and decides to force himself on her, she warns him that you won't enjoy it if the gift is not freely given and challenges him plunge a dagger in her heart. Cue a final duet where he begs forgiveness and she mocks him.

Yet, not for the first time, Handel ignores the tone of the words and creates music which is by turns seductive and engaging. Alder was delightful as Amarillis, self-possessed and seductive, masking cruelty with charm, her first aria full of poise, and her second simile aria vivid with terrific runs from soprano and violins vying with each other. Lowrey moped and sulked wonderfully, the ultimate passive agressive, his first aria was expressively grateful and his second rather touching. The final recitative was full of drama and energy in the text with a sense of urgency in that last duet.

The programme was being recorded for BBC Radio 3, so check your schedules for 15 June as the performances are well worth catching again. What all the programme delivered was the performers sense of engagement with the music and the sheer joy of performing together. We were treated to an encore, the second chamber duet again, even more luscious this time.

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