BBC Music Magazine: Choice of the Month; International Record Review: outstanding.
As a young and aspiring composer, Handel spent 1706-1710 in Italy. These were years that would prove decisive for him, as he met with excellent opportunities to expand and perfect his skills, especially in the genre of vocal music. Based in Rome, where opera was banned by papal decree, Handel only composed two works in this most Italian of genres during his stay. Instead, following the example of other composers in the Holy City, he opted for another genre which incorporated similar dramatic and expressive qualities – the cantata. During his Italian years, it is believed that Handel may have written as many as 150 such works, including a number of so-called cantate con stromenti for one or more solo voices plus additional instruments. The four cantatas on this disc feature the standard combination for such works: soprano, two violins and basso continuo. Thematically, they can be grouped in pairs: Notte placida e cheta (Calm and Placid Night) and Un’ alma innamorata (A Soul in Love) tell of unhappy love and contain elements from Classical mythology against a pastoral backdrop. By contrast, Figlio d’alte speranze (Son of High Hopes) and Agrippina condotta a morire (Agrippina Led to Her Death) tell tales of power, and of its use and abuse. Each cantata presents a small drama in its own right, and can be seen as a preliminary study in the field of opera, in which Handel thoroughly explores the best ways of using the expressive means at his disposal.
This exciting programme is presented by Emma Kirkby and London Baroque, household names in the sphere of ‘early music’ and beyond, and certainly no new-comers to the works of Handel. Indeed, when they last joined forces in a Handel programme (BIS-CD-1065) the website MusicWeb International called the performances ones that ‘make one wish that all Handel music making could be of this order’, while the reviewer in BBC Music Magazine wrote ‘I've seldom been as moved by a recording, both music and performance’.