Some rarely heard Handelian treasures are charmingly performed
The second volume in Contrasto Armonico's complete Handel cantatas project presents what seem to be two premiere recordings: "O lucenti, o sereni occhi" and "Aure soavi e liete". Both are expertly accompanied by harpsichordist Marco Vitale and cellist Marta Semkiw, and confirm that this most neglected sphere of Handel's output contains plenty of treasures for those willing to dig. For instance, Handel's word-painting to illustrate the languishing torment of a lover in "Per voi languisco e moro" (HWV144) is extraordinary but even obsessive Handelians will have scarcely heard it before. Un'alma innamorata is more familiar: it is a welcoming trend that Contrasto Armonico's performance generally flexes firmer dramatic muscles and a more focused personality than was evident on their previous attractive Handel recordings but without resorting to the eccentric and unhistorical plethora of guitars and viols that plague some other recent recordings of such repertoire. Ellen Harris's booklet-note perpetuates some controversy about alleged homoerotic tensions in the Arcadian Academy but Vitale provides his own insightful remarks probing the theory that Handel's indication of a "violone grosso" for the bass part means an 8-foot large viol and not a double bass.
The disc concludes with a lovely performance of Tra le fiamme, a metaphorical text that draws upon the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, and compares the danger of a tormented infatuation for a beautiful lover with a moth destroyed by its own fascination for a flame. Several recent recordings have dwelt on the physical peril of flying too close to the sun in their brisk tempi for the cantata's recurring musical theme but Vitale chooses wisely to evoke the gentler pastoral sonorities offered by the recorders, and more perfectly illustrates the elegant flight of a phoenix rising from the moth's ashes, just as the singer blithely hopes that their desire will transcend those of other doomed lovers. The dialogue between True's voice and Heidi Groeger's viola da gamba is delightful, and the comparatively weightless lower textures caused by the use of 8-foot violone feels absolutely right.David Vickers, Gramophone Magazine June 2010