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GRAMOPHONE (01/2020)
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Inventa Records

Handel Uncaged: Cantatas for Alto Product Image

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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

Part recital and part musical detective drama, ‘Handel Uncaged’ is, ironically, entirely captivating. At its centre is a premiere Handel recording that is both new and familiar – a cantata-cycle that shifts our perspective not just on the work itself but on the cantata as a genre.

Puzzled by the incoherent narrative and abrupt ending of Handel’s cantata Vedendo amor, HWV175, the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo was directed by scholar John Roberts to the Fitzwilliam manuscript that includes the piece as just one section in a five-part cantata-sequence, Amore uccellatore, which also includes Venne voglia, HWV176. Featuring an unprecedented 10 arias and lasting over half an hour, the first-person sequence (whose authorship was formerly in doubt) tells the story of a lover repeatedly trapped by ‘birdcatcher’ Cupid and his flock of seductive women.

Questions of how the sequence might originally have been performed are discussed in Zazzo’s extensive booklet note; but the issues are resolved here through the interpolation of instrumental movements by Handel between sections to smooth any awkward harmonic joins. Zazzo himself makes an engaging narrator, taking us seamlessly from the playful opening ‘Venne voglia’, through the colourful, lively storytelling of ‘Vedendo amor’ through to the more melancholy conclusion (the narrator’s ‘tail’ is lost, rendering him of no interest to lusty Cupid).

Zazzo, skilfully supported by Jonathan Manson (cello and gamba), Andrew Maginley (theorbo, guitar) and Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord), sounds fresher than ever here in music that celebrates his feathery softness and roundness of tone. There’s no strain and not a sharp edge in sight in this pastoral sequence, whose highlights include the lovely ‘Camminando lei pian piano’ (a near relation of Cesare’s ‘Va tacito’) and ‘Trupz ci ci’, with its vivid imitation of birdsong. If there’s a lack of blade to climactic moments of anger or bitterness, it’s perhaps only appropriate to this pastel-coloured musical fantasy world.

Instrumental interludes taken from Handel’s sonatas and suites offer necessary textural contast (the percussive crunch of Brachetta’s harpsichord is particularly welcome), helping to amplify the scope of a cantata that, if it’s not knocking on the door of full-scale opera, certainly makes its case here as a diverting solo serenata.

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