HANDEL Mira Lilla gentile (2 vers). Tra le fiamme (Il consiglio). ANONYMOUS La caduta di Icaro • Renato Criscuolo (vc, cond); Valentina Varriale (sop); Musica Perduta • BRILLIANT 94426 (69:15 & Italian only)
This is somewhat ofRead more an oddity for Brilliant Classics, a brand-new recording of hitherto unpublished and unrecorded music. Three of these cantatas are by Handel, the two versions of Mira Lilla gentile (one with violin obbligato, the other with cello) and the cantata Tra le fiamme, which uses the exact same text as the anonymous La caduta di Icaro. The liner notes indicate the odd history of Mira Lilla. Prior to its being given in concert by Musica Perduta in 2008, its only known prior exposure was a performance directed by Fabio Biondi at a private mansion in 1985. Though obviously from the composer’s Italian period, exact dating of this cantata remains uncertain, the best guesses of the experts placing it around the time he composed Ninfe e pastori (HWV 139a), O Numi eterni (Lucrezia) (HWV 145), or similar cantatas. Baron Pietro Pisani, in whose collection the cantata was found (ascribed to “Signor Federico Hendel”), lived from 1761, two years after the composer’s death, to 1837, so he was obviously not a contemporary and thus its source remains uncertain.
Since the text of this cantata is given in Italian only (why they would do such a thing for a completely unfamiliar cantata defies logic), I had to use the services of an online translator as well as my trusty Italian-English dictionary. By and large, the words seem to indicate a typical love-poem type of cantata, though my translator insists that the basic text revolves around the fact that “Lilac seeks friendly, / Aims that green lawn / That with clapping flowers / Make vague crown the amen hill,” so your guess is as good as mine.
From the very opening Sinfonia of the anonymous cantata, one is immediately struck by the fact that this is indeed composed by a master hand. No second-rate imitator could have written this music, but in my personal opinion the music has the stamp of Telemann about it and not Handel or Vivaldi. It’s an excellent piece, however, and yet another hidden gem now in the catalogue.
The setting of Mira Lilla gentile for cello and soprano uses, the notes say, a five-string cello, but to my ears it just sounds like yet another bad baroque cello which, when played with straight tone, always sounds flat. Again, I put this question to the group who made this record: Why do you consistently use straight tone? Have you never done your own musicological research into 18th-century performance practices? Thank you. This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled review.
Handel’s setting of Tra le fiamme actually has a catalog number, HWV 170, and is probably the most exciting and original Handel cantata I’ve heard in many a year. Scored for the full instrumental complement of Musica Perduta’s resources (two violins, viola da gamba, violone and bass, archlute, two recorders or sometimes recorder, and harpsichord, plus the cello and piccolo cello played by leader Criscuolo), it requires the utmost in virtuosity from all concerned (the vocal line itself has moments in which a train of quick trills is called for), and the overall impact is simply stunning. So too is the third aria, in which the strings bite crisply and a recorder flies around in the stratosphere with the soprano as she negotiates tricky coloratura passages. (While listening to Varriale here, I was continually reminded of one of Handel’s most difficult cantatas, Nell’Africane selve, written for baritone and requiring near-impossible leaps of two octaves up and down while negotiating difficult coloratura runs in between.) I was also impressed here by the richness of sound that this little band (a septet, really) manages to produce, and particularly by the way the oboe is used almost as an ersatz trumpet obbligato in the second aria. Moreover, the viola da gamba here assumes a particularly important role throughout the cantata—as the notes indicate, it almost becomes the most important soloist, on and off, throughout the cantata.
Having given a bit of a barb to Musica Perduta’s straight-tone style, I must be fair and spend a paragraph extolling the virtues of soprano Valentina Varriale. This is a first-class singer, one who apparently has done research into 18th-century performance practice and has thus evolved a simply magnificent style and technique. She encapsulates her tone in a tight, compact, bright and pointed voice production, placing all of her high notes in the masque or head as singers of that era did. Her technique is clean and facile, and more importantly, she sings with real passion. No pinny-neat, neuter soprano sound for her; within her own range, this is an expressive, full-blooded voice that does not shy away from strong emotions or several shadings of expression. In short, she is the Italian Emma Kirkby, which is to say one of the finest sopranos of her type and certainly the best Italian soprano of this school I’ve heard in recent years. Overall, and with no disservice intended towards Musica Perduta, it is Varriale’s singing that really makes this recording, and makes it valuable and treasurable. Brava, Valentina! May you have a long and prosperous recording career!