Harmonia Mundi's release features four secular cantatas and a trio sonata Handel wrote during his sojourn in Italy during his early twenties. The cantatas range from the mini-opera Il duello amoroso or Amarilli vezzosa, which depicts a shepherd's vain courting of a resisting nymph, to solo works in which a narrator describes similar pastoral stories, most of which also end in rejection. In Il duello amoroso, soprano Helene Guilmette joins countertenor Andreas Scholl, and their charming banter leaves the listener saddened that the shepherd's suit was so dismally unsuccessful. Guilmette's voice is pure and sweet, and her singing is persuasively dramatic. Scholl's voice is slightly veiled and white-sounding and has less of the clarity and sensuality that some of the finest countertenors, such as Philippe Jaroussky, possess. His singing is impeccably musical, though, and he has a fine and subtle sense of drama that breathes life into these cantatas. The listener's preference for a particular countertenor's timbre is very much a matter of personal taste, and the overall musicality of Scholl's performance may be entirely compelling for some listeners. Accademia Bizantina, led by Ottavio Dantone, provides the singers with immaculate and dramatically apt accompaniment, and the group shines when it takes center stage in the trio sonata. Harmonia Mundi's sound is characteristically warm, clean, and intimate, with good balance between the singers and instruments.
All Music Guide
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After serving an apprenticeship with the Halle organist Zachow and gaining valuable experience working at the Hamburg opera, the twenty-one-year-old Handel resolved to seek his musical fortune in Italy. He absorbed the instrumental devices of Corelli, and the vocal inventiveness of Lotti, Caldara, and Alessandro Scarlatti. The precociously talented Handel took Italy by storm, earning the accolade 'ill caro Sassone' ('The beloved Saxon'), and from 1706 until early 1710 created an astonishing group of magnificent works in every genre for the most important Italian musical centres: operas for Florence and Venice, Latin church music for Rome, a serenata for Naples, some occasional instrumental works, and a host of secular cantatas. Among numerous masterpieces produced for influential aristocratic patrons (both secular and religious) were cantate con strumenti for one, two or three solo voices accompanied by a band of instruments including violins (and sometimes diverse extra instruments). However, Italian connoisseurs fascinated with notions of Arcadian elegance particularly encouraged and appreciated cantatas for solo voice accompanied only by 'basso continuo' (conventionally a harpsichord and cello, but perhaps also joined by a theorbo). This was the core form of musical expression the brilliant Saxon employed to please and impress his paymasters.
The earliest cantata recorded here is probably Vedendo amor (HWV 175). Analysis of watermarks in Handel's undated autograph manuscript score (now in the British Library) suggests a type of paper Handel was probably using in Rome in about 1707. The singer relates how he initially escaped Cupid's cunning attempts to ensnare him, but laments his eventual capture: whilst resting in a dense, shady wood, the singer was smitten by pellets from Cupid's catapult when the shepherdess Eurilla discovered him and scornfully mocked him whilst holding a lantern over his sleeping form. Upon waking, the singer cannot escape Cupid's cruel trap. Now encaged, he sings night and day for love, but above all for rage. Handel's music contains a few ideas that he revisited in two of his finest London operas many years later: the description of Eurilla treading stealthily through the forest seems to have returned to Handel's imagination while composing the hunting aria 'Va tacito e nascosto' for the title-hero in Giulio Cesare (1724); 'Rise Eurilla, rise Amore', in which both Shepherdess and Cupid taunt the singer's entrapment, was the model for 'E un folle, e un vile affetto', Oronte's response to the scornful Morgana in Alcina (1735).
There is no autograph manuscript extant of Nel dolce tempo (HWV 135b), but a secondary manuscript copy of a version for soprano and basso continuo now in the Santini Collection at Munster originated in Italy. Other cantatas in the Santini collection were adapted from earlier compositions created for alto voice, and a reference in the text of Nel dolce tempo to the river Volturno (near Naples) provides a vital clue that Handel probably composed the original version of the cantata during his 10-week stay at Naples in 1708. His serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo was performed as part of wedding celebrations for Tolomeo Saverio Gallio, Duke of Alvito, and Beatrice Tocco, who were married on 19 July 1708. It is likely that the commissions for both the serenata and Nel dolce tempo came from the bride's aunt Aurora Sanseverino (described by Handel's first biographer Mainwaring as 'Donna Laura'), whose primary residence Piedimonte d'Alifie was close by the Volturno. Handel's rapturous music describes how in springtime the male singer fell in love at first sight with a graceful nymph on the banks of the river. Unlike the cruel women who frequently reject their devoted and hopeless lovers in this repertoire, the bashful beauty requites the singer's love with tenderness. The somewhat untypical union of happy lovers is another implication that Nel dolce tempo could have been an allegorical portrait of the aristocratic bride and groom.
If Handel had been involved with performances of his Neapolitan works, he must have returned to Rome swiftly. His major patron during this period was the Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli. An avid art collector, devoted patron of music, and leading light in Arcadian Academy, Ruspoli lived in the Palazzo Bonelli (at the south side of Rome's Piazza de' Santi Apostoli). Notwithstanding Handel's recent return from Naples, during the remainder of July he caused Ruspoli's household some extravagant expense: a sizeable bill for Handel's food during that period amounted to nearly 40 scudi (almost double the monthly salary of a prima donna), and on 31 July the household paid for two large lined curtains to block the hot sun shining through the windows of Handel's room. Just over a month later, Ruspoli paid for 45 pounds of 'snow' (or ice) to be delivered to Handel for the young composer to keep his bottles of drink cool. Now 23 years old, Handel was seemingly spared no luxury. This honoured treatment appears less indulgent when we appreciate the brilliance of the music Handel frequently provided for Ruspoli's weekly conversazioni (the official period -of entertainment which filled the late afternoon and evening every Sunday).
Il Duello Amoroso (HWV 82, also known by its first line Amarilli vezzosa) was first published as recently as 1994. Its sole manuscript source is a copy made by Antonio Giuseppe Angelini. The Ruspoli household's financial accounts (now in the Vatican's secret archive) reveal that the bill for Ange-lini's work was dated 28 August 1708, and that the cantata con strumenti was performed on 28 October 1708. While Ruspoli's house musicians probably performed cantatas for solo voice and continuo accompaniment, the larger-scale cantatas required the hire of extra singers and instrumentalists. Three additional violinists were hired to supplement the household continuo team and Ruspoli's regular violin virtuoso Domenico Castrucci (who later played in Handel's opera orchestra in London); the soprano Margherita Durastanti and alto castrato Pasqualino Betti were each paid three silver scudi each. Handel might not have been involved in the performance: after 12 September he was no longer residing at Ruspoli's Palazzo Bonelli, and the composer had probably travelled to the Florentine court of Ferdinando de' Medici. However, Ruspoli seems to have regarded the performance as a particularly festive occasion: his servant 'Ascanio' was paid to deliver invitations, which were only ever issued for special events. The cantata depicts the shepherd Daliso's desperate amorous pursuit of the cruel and spiteful Amarilli. After an overture evocative of Daliso's chasing after Amarilli, each character performs three arias: Amarilli goads Daliso into carrying out his threat to use force in order to possess her, and, when he baulks from stabbing her, she mocks his inability to prove himself man enough for her. The final duet shows the Arcadians to be cynical about love, and it is curious that Handel later adapted its music for the similarly cynical final duet and chorus in his opera Poro (1731). Handel recycled plenty of musical ideas from Il duello amoroso: Daliso's 'E vanita d'un cor* was recast just over a year later for Ottone's 'Pur ch'io ti stringo al sen' in the Venetian opera Agrippina, and the same character's 'Pietoso sguardo' (itself taken from material composed the previous year for the Florentine opera Rodrigo), was used again in the London operas Rinaldo, Il Pastor Fido and Flavio.
The musical vocabulary Handel mastered during his four years in Italy was the keystone of his mature career in England. During the first few years after arriving in London, Handel composed the earliest version of Mi palpita il cor for soprano, oboe and continuo. The version recorded here is transposed for alto voice, with the oboe part transferred to flute (HWV 132c). Handel's autograph manuscript score of this version, now in the British Library, is written on six folios of an unusual paper-type that cannot be dated precisely. This version of Mi palpita il cor might have been prepared at some time between 1712 and 1716, perhaps for the alto castrato Nicolini (who sang the title-role in Handel's first London opera Rinaldo). This lovely cantata has become one of Handel's most popular, perhaps because of charming details such as the opening statement in which the palpitations of the singer's anguished heart are conveyed by a short sequence of rising repeated notes. Handel obviously liked it too: he recalled the beguiling first line when composing Micah's 'Then long eternity' in Samson, about thirty years later.