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Handel Uncaged: Cantatas for Alto

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Larry ZazzoORCiD


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George Frideric Handel’s early Italian cantatas were a laboratory for his vocal writing, daring experiments in melody and harmony upon which Handel drew for the rest of his composing life.In Handel Uncaged, the internationally renowned countertenor Lawrence Zazzo has ‘uncaged’ a selection of these cantatas for the alto voice, presenting them in new ways, crowned by the world premiere recording of unpublished music from Handel’s astonishing and amusing 10-aria cantata cycle, Amore Uccellatore.Zazzo is joined by a stellar continuo team of Jonathan Manson (cello and viola da gamba), Andrew Maginley (theorbo & guitar) and Guillermo Brachetta (harpsichord).

Publication metadata

Author(s): Zazzo L, Handel G

Publication type: Digital or Visual Media

Publication status: Published

Year: 2019

Extent of Work: 74 min., 26 sec.

Publisher: Inventa Records

Place Published: Norton, Malton, North Yorkshire

Type: CD Compact disc recording

Format: CD recording

Performers(s): Zazzo, L; Maginley, A; Brachetta, G; Manson, A

Notes: CD Notes: Handel Uncaged Lawrence Zazzo The genesis of Handel Uncaged was a chance conversation with Handel scholar John Roberts at the American Handel Society Conference in Princeton in 2017. I had just given a performance of Handel's Vedendo amor, one of my favourite alto cantatas, but one which, with its curious evocation of dark forests, torch-bearing women, earth-pellet shooting cherubs, and a narrator who finishes that cantata with an angry recitative in a cage, also always puzzled me. John alerted me to the existence of an unpublished manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which solves at least one part of the puzzle for the performer. Part of the original collection donated by Viscount Fitzwilliam in his bequest to the Fitzwilliam, the manuscript, entitled Amore uccellatore, or 'Cupid the Birdcatcher', has a Florentine provenance, with at least its opening section authored by the Pistoian poet Francesco Bracciolini (1566-1645). It opens with early versions of Handel's known cantatas Venne voglia (HWV 176) and Vedendo amor (HWV 175), both of which are extant in autographs, but then continues with three more scenes comprising seven recitatives and five unpublished arias, for which there are no other sources. Unusually witty, light and even salacious for Handel, as 'defragmented' here in the Fitzwilliam manuscript we find a continuous and comprehensible story by a first-person narrator, a male bird being pursued by five women and Cupid, acting variously as birdcatchers, lures and decoys. The male bird is captured and escapes three times, once through a hole in a net, a second by biting the finger of his female captor, and finally only by losing his ‘tail’ or ‘coda’, this word in Italian having the expected double meaning. It ends with Cupid and the five women deciding that this male bird, without his ‘tail’, is no longer desirable, and they instead go off in search of other birds. With a length completely unprecedented to my knowledge in the Handelian cantata repertoire, its continuous first-person narrative, and witty tone, why has this extraordinary cantata cycle lain so long neglected, unpublished, and unperformed? Part of the neglect may have to do with suspicions on the part of Handel scholars about the second, non-autograph half of the manuscript. However, recent work by John Roberts and fellow Handel scholar Andrew Jones on Amore uccellatore has demonstrated strong musical echoes with an aria in Agrippina and music by fellow composers Handel would have known from his time in Hamburg, finally creating a consensus that the entire work is by Handel. Despite its Florentine origin, it is still not known whether Handel ever actually performed Amore uccellatore as it is presented in the Fitzwilliam manuscript, or in which city, or for what audience. Ellen Harris has suggested that the cycle may, like other cantatas of the period, have been performed serially: either weekly at conversazione customarily held by Handel's Italian patrons, or over the course of a single evening, its sections perhaps dintercalated by the multiple courses of a Florentine feast. Whatever the original circumstances, the question remains: what options are available for us to present the cantata cycle in a modern concert performance, as a continuous, uninterrupted whole? The least 'interventionist' option—simply performing the music as presented on the pages in the Fitzwilliam manuscript, leaving a certain amount of silence between sections to ameliorate the awkward harmonic joins—is not a satisfactory one to me, nor is it clear that this would have been Handel's preferred option. There is abundant contemporary evidence that continuo players were expected to improvise in pauses in the music, allowing singers to rest, and that Handel was particularly adept at improvising in this way. In creating what I view as a workable continuous performing version that straddles historical performance and creative practice, Amore uccellatore is here fleshed-out with a mixture of instrumental pieces by Handel and improvisations by our continuo players. For a musical introduction, I took a cue from a crossed-out indication for a 'Sonatina' at the opening of Handel's autograph for Venne voglia. It may be that Handel was only re-using paper, but the fact that this single bar of music matches the opening of an elaborate archlute solo introduction to 'Come la rondinella' from another contemporary cantata Clori, Tirsi, e Fileno (HWV 96), depicting the flight of a sparrow, was too delicious a coincidence to ignore. This also inspired me to seek out Handel's other 'Sonatinas', short pieces written later in London, most likely for his pupils, with the idea that these, along with his more well-known instrumental pieces, may have also represented written-out extemporisations for which Handel became famous in Italy. His G major 'Sonatina' or 'Fuga' (HWV 582), written around 1720-22 and beautifully embellished here by Guillermo, perfectly introduces Part III by echoing Handel's first 'new' aria, 'Quando meno lo pensai'. Earlier, I chose to link the 'scene change' from Part I to II with the second and third movements from the Suite in F major (HWV 427), composed around 1717-18. For me, the F major Allegro captures the bird's exhilaration at his first bout of freedom, while the D minor Adagio, transcribed here by Andrew Maginley for solo lute, creates a scenic and tonal transition into the 'folto bosco ombroso' of Vedendo amor. To embellish what is essentially the humorous antiheroic climax of the cycle at the end of Part IV—the bird's loss of his 'tail'—Guillermo, Jonathan and I collaborated on a chordal accompaniment for gamba followed by the meditative Larghetto movement from the Sonata in G minor (HWV 364). Handel wrote this for violin around 1724, but also gave an indication for an ossia for viola da gamba in the autograph (HWV 364b), probably for the gamba player David Boswillibald. I decided to include it here to showcase Jonathan Manson's virtuosity, with the knowledge that Handel had access to several excellent gamba players while in Italy— Ernst Christian Hesse, for whom he most likely wrote the demanding gamba part in Resurezzione and the cantata Tra le fiamme (HWV 170), and Filippo Amadei, who played for Cardinal Ottoboni until 1711 and would later join Handel as an opera composer and player for the Royal Academy in London. You may recognise echoes of Bertarido's defeated first entrance in Act I of Rodelinda, in which he contemplates his own epitaph. Might Handel or one of his players have improvised something similarly lamentoso or funebral here in a hypothetical performance of Amore uccellatore? The experience of taking Amore uccellatore outside of its paper 'cage' in this world premiere recording inspired me to find other examples of Handel cantatas that could be similarly (re) joined in performance. In a secondary cantata collection in the Royal College of Music, I was struck by an unusual cue 'segue cantata 48th' and 'Volti' ['turn the page (quickly)'] at the end of the alto continuo cantata Dolce pur d'amor l'affanno (HWV 109a), which is followed by Figli del mesto cor (HWV 112). While a pairing in performance of Dolce pur with Figli del mesto cor does not feel right, the last aria of Dolce pur is identical to that of Stanco di piu soffrire (HWV 167a), which does work rather well paired with Figli del mesto cor, both early Italian alto cantatas that lack autographs and share a dreaming and fainting first-person narrator who swerves between self-pity and attack. With the assistance of Guillermo Brachetta's masterful transitional improvisation, two beloved alto cantatas that are normally presented separately or miscellaneously in performance are here presented as a mini cycle. Handel Uncaged is primarily an attempt to recontextualise Handel's cantatas, taking them out of their small musical 'cages' for modern performance, inviting performers to be more flexible in their presentation and thus making his cantatas come alive in non-original settings. However, the title also works in a biographical sense. Handel's patrons were often generous and complimentary, but his cantatas were very much work-products, provided weekly in what Handel saw as a 'quota' for patrons like the Marquis Ruspoli in exchange for room and board. There is also creditable documentary evidence that Handel may have been leaving certain romantic entanglements behind when he left Italy in the winter of 1709-1710. He appeared to have been involved with Vittoria Tarquini, a Florentine soprano and mistress of Handel's patron Ferdinando di Medici, and had attracted in Rome the overly-effuse admiration of Cardinal Pamphilj, whom Handel later called a flattering 'old Fool'. For this reason, I've chosen to open Handel Uncaged with another of the earliest Italian cantatas, Udite il mio consiglio, whose anonymous text warns a young shepherd of the dangers of an attractive but ultimately 'false and cunning' fellow shepherdess. To my knowledge, this is the first recording to correctly present Handel's shortened version for the Marquis Ruspoli in or outside Rome in May 1707, in which he eliminates a long initial 'arioso' and proceeds directly to an Allegro 3/8 that illustrates their dangerously playful amours. It may be that Handel cut the arioso 'Innocente rassembra' and replaced it with secco recitative to accommodate the higher tessitura of Ruspoli's house soprano, Margherita Durastante, but I retained this change here in a slightly transposed version for alto voice, as I find its concision also musically and dramatically welcome. I see in all of these early cantatas, especially of course in the avian narrator of Amore uccellatore, the figure of Handel himself, a composer who spent periods of his career trying to avoid those who would cage him, but who eventually enjoyed a long and fruitful 'coda' of financial and artistic freedom. THANKS Heartfelt thanks to Handel scholars John Roberts, Andrew Jones, and Ellen Harris, whose scholarship on Amore uccellatore and Handel's cantatas in general inspired this CD and who have been absolutely essential to the project in providing advice, scores, and translations. I am also grateful for the support of a Newcastle University Strategic Research Fund grant, as well as the generous sponsorship of Lady Davies and the KT Wong Foundation. Without the patience, musicianship, and risk-taking of my fabulous players Jonathan, Andrew, and Guillermo, as well as Adam Binks of Resonus/Inventa Records, Handel Uncaged would certainly still be caught in its conceptual cage. Finally, thank you my dearest Viv and Sophia for enduring the many times this past year when my mind was elsewhere in the woods with Handel, Cupid and his owl…