Handel from the Netherlands and an auspicious start to a promising series

[p]Handel’s serenata was composed for a wedding celebration at Naples in summer 1708. Emmanuelle Haim’s quirky 2003 recording (Virgin, 7/03) features plenty of colourful music-making and presents a stronger conflict between the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus and the two lovers than this tidy performance by the young Netherlands-based group Contrasto Armonico, which is apparently the first in a series of Handel projects. The group will presumably improve at small details, such as the continuo team telescoping cadences at the end of recitatives, the singers raising the dramatic convinction of the story-telling a few more degrees, and the orchestra finding a way to retain the fine aspects of its elegant playing while achieving more varied characteristics in different arias.[/p]
[p]However, this is an auspicious debut. The duet “Sorge il di” illustrates the tasteful understanding between singers and instrumentalists. Luciana Mancini has a more suitable voice for a part that Handel probably wrote for a mezzo-soprano rather than Haim’s contraldo Sara Mingardo. Canadian soprano Stefanie True is more understated than Haim’s trump card Sandrine Piau, but sings Acis no less beautifully. Mitchell Sandler’s performance of Polyphemus’ “Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto” is flamboyant rather than menacing, but there is something to be said for allowing the convivial radiance of Handel’s music to shine.[/p]
[p]The performance is noteworthy for Marco Vitale’s natural tempi and obvious affection for the subtleties in Handel’s notation (“Qui l’augel di pianta in pianta” is performed lyrically in 6/8 as the composer indicated, unlike Haim’s lush but self-indulgent slow 3/4). The fast music is quick enough, but never at the expense of articulacy. Recitatives could flow a little more freely, but I particularly enjoyed their clarity and simplicity, which allows the listener time to become fully immersed in the poetry. Rather than trying to escape the music’s stylised conventions (as Haim often seems overly desperate to), Vitale warmly embraces them and shares them with his listeners.[/p]

David Vickers
Gramophone Awards 2008



Auf seiner ersten CD zeigt sich das vor gut drei Jahren in Delft gegründete Alte-Musik-Ensemble Contrasto Armonico mit einem eleganten, flüssigen und abgerundeten Musizierstil, der sich von dem vieler Mitstreiter der Szene abhebt, bei denen das Schroffe und Akzentuierte oft zur Marotte gerät. Dessen Leiter, der Cembalist Marco Vitale, hat sich vorgenommen, mit der Plattenfirma Brilliant eine Großserie von Händel-Aufnahmen zu pu bli zieren, ein ehrgeiziges Ziel angesichts einer mehr oder weniger vollständigen Händel-Diskographie.
Aber wenn man seine vielversprechende Aufnahme von „Aci, Galatea e Polifemo“ hört, wünscht man Durchhaltevermögen. In der Zukunft klingen die angenehm unverbrauchten Stimmen der Sopranistin Stefanie True, der Mezzosopranistin Luciana Mancini und des Basses Mitchell Sandler sicher auch noch ein wenig geschliffener. Mitchell Sandler ist im Übrigen die Attraktion der Aufnahme: Er zelebriert die Partie des Polifemo mit extremen Sprüngen und extrem tiefer Lage in geradezu lustvoller Weise. Skurril mutet die Arie „Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori“ an, in der sich Polifemo mit einem verwirrten Schmetterling in der Dunkelheit vergleicht; so verwirrt stolpert – freilich absolut intonations- und klangsicher – der Bassist von oben nach unten und umgekehrt durch den Ambitus seiner Partie.

Diese Arie ist typisch für diese klangfarbenreiche und musikalisch unterhaltsame Serenata. Hier spielen gedämpfte Violi nen, Blockflöten und ein Violone ohne Cembalo. Solche besonderen Kombina tionen machen die Partitur von „Aci, Galatea e Polifemo“, die Händel 1708 im Alter von 23 in Neapel schrieb, zu einer der interessanten ihrer Zeit.
Richard Lorber
(Fono Forum Klassik Magazine, September 2008)



On its first CD release, the early music ensemble Contrasto Armonico, founded in Delft three years ago, introduces a very elegant, fluid and resonant style which sets the ensemble apart from many of its competitors who tend to accentuate brusque manners to an extent in which they evolve into mere fads.

The director of the ensemble, the harpsichordist Marco Vitale, has made it his goal to publish a large series of Handel recordings in cooperation with the record label Brilliant. This is an ambitious project, taking into account a Handel discography which already appears to be more or less complete. But on hearing his highly promising recording of “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”, one cannot but wish him stamina to do so. In future recordings, the enjoyably fresh voices of soprano Stefanie True, mezzo soprano Luciana Mancini and basso Mitchell Sandler may probably sound a bit more smooth as well. Speaking of Mitchell Sandler, he is the main attraction of this recording, celebrating the part of Polifemo with its extreme jumps and extremely low passages in a downright luxurious manner. The aria “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori”, in which Polifemo compares himself to a dazzled butterfly in the darkness, is given a superbly grotesque character, with Sandler stumbling seemingly disorientated, but always firm in intonation and timbre, up and down the ambitus of his part.

This aria may serve as an example to show how rich Handel’s serenata is in musical colours and ideas. It is set for muted violins, recorders and a violone without harpsichord. It is combinations like this which let the score of “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”, composed by Handel in Naples 1708 at the age of 23, stand out as one of the most interesting of it’s time.

Richard Lorber
(translation Eva Schulze)

Tijdschrift Oude Muziek Utrecht

Grootspraak: ik ken het gros van de musici op deze cd persoonlijk. Niet omdat ik me dagelijks in de kringen van de grote barokensembles beweek, maar omdat Contrasto Armonico en solisten een Haags product zijn en dus dicht bij huis. En een uitstekend voorbeel van, naar ik hoop, de nieuwe garde ‘Nederlandse’ oudemuziekers. Zoveel uitvoeringen zijn er niet verkrijgbaar van Handels serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, wat Vitale’s degelijk onderbouwde prestatie des te meer bijzonder maakt. Hij houdt zijn ensemble beter bij elkaar dan bijvoorbeeld Haim in haar opname uit 2003, en schildert met een brede maar uiterst kleurrijke kwast. De damessolisten Stefanie True en Luciana Mancini zijn allebei net afgestudeerd en slaan zich opgewekt door alle coloraturen, hoewel ik denk dat het nog wat gemakkelijker kan. Voor Mitchell Sandler is het eindexamen wat langer geleden, maar met zijn Polifemo is niet mis. En voor zo’n prijs mogen we natuurlijk sowieso niet klagen.
(AE) Tijdschrift Oudemuziek, February 2008


Forgive my bragging: I know the majority of the musicians on this CD personally. Not because I’m given to hanging out with the big baroque ensembles, but Contrasto Armonico and soloists are true products of the Hague, and therefore, for me, close to home. And they are an excellent example of what I hope we can look forward to in the new batch of ‘Dutch’ early musicians. There are not so very many available performances of Handel’s serenata ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’, which makes Vitale’s thoroughly researched achievement all the more extraordinary. He holds his group together better than Emanuelle Haïm, to give one example, in her 2003 recording. His brush may be broad, but he paints with a large palette of colours. The female soloists Stefanie True and Luciana Mancini are both recent graduates [of the Royal Conservatoire at the Hague] and show great brio in all their coloratura passages, although I think it could perhaps sound a bit easier. Mitchell Sandler graduated somewhat longer ago, but there’s nothing wrong with his Polifemo. And for this price there’s no cause to complain.

(February 2008)