Handel in Rome 1707

Maria Espada, Rachel Redmond, Marta Fumagalli SSA, Ghislieri Choir & Consort, Giulio Prandi
69:59
deutsche harmonia mundi 88985348422
Ah che troppo ineguali, Donna che in ciel, Dixit Dominus

A cracking compilation of three of Handel’s youthful masterpieces, culled from recent live performances in Göttingen, Pavia and Ambronay.

The little-known cantata ‘Donna, che in ciel’ opens the disc; its unusual structure (formal French overture, three contrasting arias, with one of the intervening recitatives ‘accompagnato’ and a final aria with contrapuntal chorus) is convincingly suggested by Juliana Riepe as a ‘calling card’ marking Handel’s arrival in Rome in early 1707. Handelians will recognise several old friends- the first movement of the overture was recycled in Agrippina, whilst the striking semiquaver “vacillation” motif which opens the first aria reappears in the sinfonia to the final scene of Giulio Cesare. The final chorus has some echoes in the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, and the block chords and bass runs of a certain well-known Coronation anthem also make an early appearance. It is a splendid piece, and must have created a considerable stir in Roman musical circles.

Maria Espada is fully in control in the demanding vocal writing, and can throw off semiquaver runs seemingly effortlessly; she also has the beauty of tone and phrasing to make the lovely second continuo-accompanied aria glow.

She is similarly splendid in the next work, a recitative and aria possible performed by the castrato Pascalino at a ‘spiritual concert’ organised by Cardinal Ottoboni for the feast of the Annunciation later the same year.

The disc concludes with the well-known and dazzlingly-virtuosic ‘Dixit Dominus’, where the excellent Ghisleri choir get a chance to really show off. Giulio Prandi sets uncompromisingly lively speeds, to spine-tingling effect. Try the superb final chorus- the Gloria Patri begins with two contrasting thematic tags, which thrillingly combine with the proper psalm tone in long notes (appropriately ‘as it was in the beginning’). The final ‘Amen’ is an exhilarating repeated-note fugue, which takes the sopranos to high B flats, and has everyone singing their shirts off; the repeated stretti and the seemingly-endless pedal point at the end bring the work (and disc) to a gloriously contrapuntally-satisfying conclusion. The lovely tone and precise passagework of the Glaswegian soprano Rachel Redmond, in her aria ‘Tecum principium’, is also worth watching out for.

The sleeve note is interesting factually, though perhaps a little wayward in translation from time to time.

Alastair Harper