An ambitious project to record all of Handel's cantatas gets under way

Contrasto Armonico is embarking on an ambitious project to record all of Handel's cantatas. Whereas La Risonanza's magnificent seven-volume series for Glossa (now nearly complete) includes only the cantatas with instruments that the composer wrote in Italy, Marco Vitale has resolved to record every single cantata, including those with only continuo accompaniment, and also those written after Handel moved to London. It is a brave and useful undertaking: many of the continuo cantatas are still not available in a scholarly printed edition and plenty have never been recorded before.

Contrasto Armonico's first volume, produced under the patronage of Princess Claudia Ruspoli (the descendent of Handel's principal ltalian benefactor), contains a relaxed performance of Delirio amoroso. Contrasto Armonico's playing of this lovely cantata, written for Cardinal Pamphiji in 1707, is gently conversational. Vitale finely judges the string figures illustrating Hell in the middle section of "Un pensiero voli in ciel" (which also features Joanna Huszcza's tasteful violin obbligato). Stefanie True sings with an appealing naturalness, even if she could occasionally do a little more with the extrovert personality of some texts; this is not as dramatic an account as some but the Canadian soprano conveys better than most that this is a story related by a narrator, and not a first-person mini-opera. Vitale nurtures soft and warm sonorities from his band, and the Minuet possesses the full flavour of a courtly ballet. Vitale and cellist Marta Semkiw perform fluent and sensitive accompaniments in the three continuo cantatas; Ditemi, o piante is a premiere recording. Vitale's booklet-note reveals his careful pondering of the project's performance practice issues (eg the use of low "Roman" pitch), although notes for future volumes might perhaps provide a little more commentary on the featured cantatas, and Brilliant Classics's presentation of sung texts could be a little clearer regarding when one cantata ends and another begins. This is a charming Start to a series that promises to be a profoundly rewarding exploration of Handel's least familiar music.


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David Vickers, Gramophone February 2010