Handel: Duetti e Terzetti italiani

Roberta Invernizzi, Silvia Frigato, Krystian Adam, Thomas Bauer SSTBar, La Risonanza, Fabio Bonizzoni dir
Glossa GCD 921517

Recent years have produced no greater aural pleasure than La Risonanza’s on-going series of Handel’s vocal chamber works. Here they turn their attention to one of the most neglected genres in his output, the vocal duets and trios with continuo accompaniment. Checking back, I was amazed to find that it is now 30 years since the delightful Hungarian soprano Mária Zádori and alto Paul Esswood produced a splendid two-CD set including eleven duets. Since that was for a different vocal disposition, there are no duplications with the new disc, the contents of which are two trios and nine duets composed during or (in one case) possibly just before Handel’s Italian sojourn (1707-1709).

At the time Handel visited Italy the vocal duet was popular as a sophisticated chamber form cultivated by composers such as Steffani. I find several aspects of the youthful Handel’s contribution to it quite remarkable, perhaps above all in his realisation of dramatic possibilities not necessarily inherent in texts largely concerned with the vagaries of love. He achieves this by adopting a flexible approach quite different from the formalism of the chamber cantatas. There are no da capo  arias, the text being treated in sections in ways that seem to take their cue from the words. Take, for example, ‘Va, speme infida’ (HWV 199) (Go, treacherous hope, be off), for two sopranos. It opens, as suggested by the text, driven by a strong running bass and rapid imitative passaggi  between the voices. ‘Tu baldanzosa’ (You told my heart in a conceited manner) brings a new idea, with a slower dotted rhythm, still with much imitative passaggi  but now also introducing lovely floated cantabile writing. At the word ‘Ma’ (but) that starts line 4, the pause after it brings a striking moment of rhetoric, before continuing the fervid sentiment (‘if having been a liar to no avail’) in more declamatory, increasingly accusatory mode before almost imperceptibly text and music slip back to the opening to create a satisfying and thoroughly logical cyclical form. The whole effect is both musically and dramatically masterful. I’ve chosen to discuss this one duet in detail as an illustration of Handel’s extraordinarily confident handling of the form, but most of the others could be discussed in similar fashion. The pair of trios add not only an extra voice, but also an extra dimension, demonstrating the composer’s mastery of counterpoint in writing of madrigalian complexity and sensitivity. ‘Se tu non lasci amore’ (HWV 201) (Too well do I know that if you do not give up love), for which we have a rare specific date and place of composition (Naples, 12 July 1708), is scored for two sopranos and bass, the contrast of vocal gamut skilfully exploited in intricately interwoven lines. The text, which speaks of the anguish of the separated lover, lends itself to writing that involves such an unusually high degree of chromaticism and dissonant suspensions that it inspires the note writer to the unlikely theory that it was composed in homage to Gesualdo, himself of course Neapolitan.

As might have been predicted, the performances are very much a match for the interest and high quality of the music. Roberta Invernizzi has been one of the mainstays of the series, but her customary musical insight and gloriously free tone is here matched keenly by Silvia Frigato and Thomas Bauer, their performance of the bewitching ‘Tacete, ohimè, tacete! (HWV 196) (Cease, oh, be still), a plea not to disturb the sleeping Amor, bringing some exquisite mezza voce  singing and forming one of the highlights of the CD. The excellent tenor Krystian Adam gets only one duet with Invernizzi, ‘Caro autor di mio doglia’ ((HWV 182) (Dearest author of my pain), but that too is exceptional, the one unadulterated love duet. Again the structure is interesting, with a high point of ecstatic fervour at the declamation ‘O lumi! O volto! O luci! O labbro! (O enlightenment! O countenance! O eyes! O lips!). It will come as no surprise to those who’ve followed the series to learn that Bonizzoni’s support is as unobtrusively musical as ever. If that sounds like faint praise, it is not meant to be; his refusal to strive for superfluous effect is one of his greatest assets, not to mention a rare one. Reservations? Very few, but critical duty demands mention of Invernizzi’s tendency to sing too loudly in her upper register, and I felt the singers were a little parsimonious with ornamentation. But that is Beckmesser-ish carping in the context of what is unquestionably one of the best discs of 2015. A joy of a CD!

Brian Robins