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GRAMOPHONE ( 10 / 2018)
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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

With opera banned as a dangerous corrupting force by the puritanical Pope Innocent XII, Roman aristocrats around 1700 made do with the next best thing: chamber cantatas for one or two voices that were in effect unstaged operatic scenas. The young Handel, lionised by the Roman elite after his arrival in the city in late 1706, found the cantata an ideal medium for honing his melodic and dramatic fluency. The 80-odd chamber cantatas he composed for his Italian patrons, many of them still little known, were also to prove a fertile quarry for later works (Handel was the last composer to waste a good musical idea).

Carolyn Sampson and Robert King have come up with an appealing programme of four soprano cantatas that range from the tragic, impassioned Armida abbandonata and Agrippina condotta a morire to the Arcadian Tra le fiamme, where poet and composer reflect on the Icarus myth with a light, elegant touch. Sampsons credentials as a superb Baroque stylist hardly need stressing. In Tra le fiamme and the rarely heard Figlio dalte speranze a cantata that ponders the vacillating fortunes of King Abdolonymus she sings with her familiar grace of phrase and ease of coloratura. Crucially, too, she musters a true trill. Beyond this, Sampson subtly varies her naturally limpid tone in response to the dramatic situation. Words are always clearly and expressively articulated. In Tra le fiamme she duets airily with Reiko Ichises viola da gamba obbligato; and she brings an infectious spirit to the pirouetting final aria of the otherwise introspective Figlio dalte speranze. Only the jog-trotting tempo for the aria Pien di nuovo e bel diletto in Tra le fiamme raises doubts. Magdalena Kožená, with Marc Minkowski (Archiv, 2/01), realises so much more vividly Icaruss impatience as he anticipates his first (and last) flight.

Other singers, including Véronique Gens (Virgin, 6/99), Emanuela Galli (Glossa, 10/07) and Roberta Invernizzi (Glossa, 10/06), have brought richer voices and/or more Italianate temperament to the two cantatas drawn from Roman history. And at times – say, in the turbulent ‘Venti, fermate’ in Armida – I wanted a fierier attack, a whiff of danger, from the ever-accomplished King’s Consort. But in both works Sampson charts a credible emotional journey, shaping her lines with mingled sensuality and pathos in the beautiful opening aria of Armida, abetted by eloquent continuo-playing, and using the Italian consonants to dramatic effect in the recitatives. If Sampson’s timbre is naturally more suited to Agrippina’s grief and vulnerability than to her ruthless hauteur, she finely manages the violent mood shifts in this magnificent cantata, where one section tumbles intemperately into the next. She musters ample depth of tone for the empress’s explosive eruptions and perfectly catches her mix of pride and heartbreak in the final recitative. Minor reservations aside, here is a disc that can be enthusiastically recommended to Sampson’s many admirers and Handel lovers alike. Presentation, too, is first-class, with texts, literate translations and discerning, readable notes from Ruth Smith.

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