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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Apollo e Dafne

Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: June 2015
North Leith Parish Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: September 2016
Total duration: 69 minutes 10 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover image by Colm Mac Athlaoich
 

Handel's ambitious early cantata Apollo e Dafne receives a vibrant new performance from Ensemble Marsyas and soloists Mhairi Lawson and Callum Thorpe.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.

Reviews

'The instrumental playing … stands out: pert, shapely, spicy, full of drama' (The Observer)» More

'A sparkling new recording of Handel’s lovely pastoral cantata' (Early Music Review)» More

'Some gorgeous melodic moments from the two singers and, particularly, from the many solo and obligate instrumental contributions … such an impressive recording' (AndrewBensonWilson.org)

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In 1703 George Frideric Handel left his native Halle and travelled to Hamburg where he scraped a living as a back-desk violinist at the Gänsemarkt opera house and gradually worked his way up through the ranks until his first opera Almira was premiered there in January 1705. By mid-1706, the twenty-one year old Handel had become fascinated by Italianate music and resolved to travel to Italy at his own expense. Probably arriving in Rome by Christmas 1706, he spent just over the next three years in Italy where he absorbed the influences of the most illustrious Italian composers, librettists and performers of the day. He pursued a successful freelance career writing spectacular church music and secular cantatas in Rome, a serenata for Naples, and operas for Florence and Venice. According to his first biographer, John Mainwaring, the climax to Handel’s Italian journey was the opera Agrippina, premiered on 26 December 1709 at the Teatro San Giovanni Gristostomo in Venice (now known as Teatro Malibran):

This opera drew over all the best singers from the other houses. Among the foremost of these was the famous Vittoria, who a little before Handel’s removal to Venice had obtained permission of the grand Duke to sing in one of the houses there. At Agrippina her inclinations gave new lustre to her talents. Handel seemed almost as great and majestic as Apollo, and it was far from the lady’s intention to be so cruel and obstinate as Daphne.

Mainwaring’s anecdotal account is confused and contradicted by documentary sources. Victoria Tarquini was the favourite soprano (and mistress) of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici in Florence, where she might have first met Handel in 1707 at around the time of his opera Rodrigo (in which she did not take part). She was not employed by any of Venice’s theatres during the 1709–10 carnival season, is not known to have travelled to the city, and is not mentioned in the cast list in the printed libretto of Agrippina. Nevertheless, Mainwaring’s analogy to the myth of (the god of music) Apollo’s ill-fated amorous pursuit of the beautiful but unrelenting nymph Daphne is an intriguing coincidence. Before Handel left Venice in early 1710, he had started setting to music the dramatic cantata La terra è liberata, known nowadays by its popular nickname Apollo e Dafne.

The anonymous libretto is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses as retold by Petrarch in Canzoniere. Apollo has just defeated the monstrous Python and liberated the people of Delphi and the cantata commences with his arrogant boasting: he has delivered the earth from terror with his bow (‘Pende il ben dell’universo, da quest’arco salutar’); he brags that his skills as an archer are superior to Cupid’s, and that he can never be vanquished by any opponent (the flamboyant ‘Spezza l’arco e getta l’armi’). Cupid gains his revenge instantly when the blissful nymph Daphne enters the scene, singing her gorgeous aria ‘Felicissima quest’alma / ch’ama sol la libertà’ (accompanied by pizzicato strings and a murmuring solo oboe—the instrument is a distinctive feature in all three of her arias). Instantly smitten by her voice and beauty, the enraptured Apollo tries to seduce Daphne in vain; she rejects him resolutely, professing that she is devoted only to Apollo’s sister Diana (‘Ardi, adori, e preghi in vano’; this time the solo oboe conveys anguish). They are depicted at loggerheads in a scampering duet that shows their opposition intensifying (‘Una guerra ho dentro il seno’). Sensing his abject failure, Apollo tries another tactic, and speaks seductively (‘Come rosa in su la spina’), with gently rustling strings and rapturous cello obbligato, but she spurns him again in a plaintive lament (‘Come in ciel benigna stella’), an eloquent dialogue with oboe. Apollo’s melancholic lyricism and Daphne’s scornful irritation are astutely characterized in a confrontational duet (‘Deh! lascia addolcire’). Eventually, Apollo’s amorous failures lead inexorably to sexual frustration, and he runs after her with rapacious intent (‘Mie piante correte’—florid concertante violin and bassoon parts convey the sense of the chase)—but this is suddenly interrupted by his shocked reaction when Daphne escapes his pursuit by metamorphosing into a laurel tree. The guilty god is astonished, disappointed and chastened; he promises that from henceforth all heroes shall wear a crown of laurels in Daphne’s honour (‘Cara pianta’), with spellbinding trio passages for two oboes and bassoon.

Handel initially wrote the music on the same unusual paper-type that he had used in the autograph manuscript of Agrippina, which means that he must have taken the unfinished cantata with him to Hanover where the score was revised and the remainder of the music completed sometime later in 1710. A considerable amount of the finished score is written on a unique paper-type not evident in any of Handel’s other autograph manuscripts, but which has been identified in manuscripts prepared by a Hanover copyist for the electoral court library of operas by Agostino Steffani (the court Kapellmeister from 1688–1703).

Fresh from his Italian successes, Handel was appointed as the new court Kapellmeister by Elector Georg Ludwig (the future George I of Great Britain) on 16 June 1710—just two days after the Dowager Electress Sophia had written to her granddaughter with gossip about the handsome young musician:

The Elector has taken on a Master of the Chapel named Hendel, who plays marvelously on the harpsichord, which gives the Electoral Prince and Princess great joy. He is quite a handsome man, and gossip says that he has been the lover of Victoria [Tarquini].

Such gossip was unambiguously scandalous in Hanover because the court orchestra’s concertmaster Jean-Baptiste Farinel—a French violinist who managed the day-to-day activities of the Hanoverian musicians—had married Tarquini in 1689. Whether or not the gossip reflected truth, it is incontrovertible that Handel proceeded to spend surprisingly little time doing his job in Hanover. According to Mainwaring, the composer ‘loved liberty too well’ to accept the job without the condition that he be permitted to accept an invitation he had already received from the Duke of Manchester to visit England.

After only a few months in Hanover, Handel was in London by the winter of 1710. The popular success of Rinaldo (first performed at the Queen’s Theatre on the Haymarket, 24 February 1711) might have persuaded the ambitious composer that his future was in Britain rather than Hanover. Nevertheless, he most likely left London in May 1711 and returned to his official duties at Hanover. By the end of July, Handel was studying to improve his command of the English language and after approximately seventeen months based in Hanover he was back in London by mid-October 1712. Two new contrasting operas were composed for the 1712–13 season; the pastoral tragicomedy Il pastor fido (first performed on 22 November 1712) and the French-style five-act tragedy Teseo (first performed on 10 January 1713). This time Handel’s visit evolved into permanent residence, not least because his increasingly close ties to the court of Queen Anne and prolonged absences from Hanover irked the Elector to the extent that the Kapellmeister was unceremoniously dismissed from his job in June 1713.

An examination of Handel’s scores and research into court documents yields few clues about what kinds of musical activities he undertook as part of his official duties in Hanover. Elector Georg Ludwig had closed down the 1,300 seat opera house built in the late1680s by his father Ernst in August. Instead, there seems to have been an emphasis on chamber music during Handel’s brief association with the court music at Hanover and most of his music-making probably took place at Herrenhausen, the summer palace where the court resided between May and October each year. There was a garden theatre, and it is tempting to imagine Apollo e Dafne being performed there as a serenata one summer evening—although the completion of the score after his arrival in Hanover does not necessarily mean it was intended for the electoral court.

A more certain contender for Handel’s contributions to court music at Hanover is a series of twelve chamber duets set to poetry by Ortensio Mauro, a former secretary to the Hanover court whose verses had also been set as chamber duets by Steffani. Perhaps a few keyboard and instrumental pieces had their origins during Handel’s time in Hanover. On the other hand, the court orchestra of about eighteen musicians was admired by Georg Philipp Telemann for its ability to play in the French style, and the Hamburg theorist Johann Mattheson claimed that ‘an excellent band of oboists’ had been headhunted from the Prussian court at Berlin. Maybe some of these players could have been featured prominently in the various woodwind parts of Apollo e Dafne. Moreover, it seems inconceivable that Handel would not have composed some orchestral music with the Hanover band at his disposal.

It is plausible that the unusually long six-movement overture to the London opera Il pastor fido might have originated as an independent orchestral suite written for the Hanover court written in 1711–12 (i.e. the longest period Handel spent in Hanover, between his two trips to England). It comprises a superb French-style overture followed by five contrasting movements, and no other overture for any of Handel’s operas (and oratorios) for London is so elaborate and extended. The eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney praised it as ‘one of the most masterly and pleasing of the kind’. There is an elegant flow between finely crafted fast and quick movements, and the music contains plenty of prominent woodwind writing: the gorgeous seven-part ‘Largo’ in F major has a trio of oboes and bassoon, and the plaintive ‘Adagio’ in D minor is a tender dialogue between solo oboe and violin (all elements similar to those we find in Apollo e Dafne).

Not much is currently known about the players in the Hanover court orchestra, but in London, Handel could certainly utilize the talents of highly esteemed woodwind players. The opera orchestra at the Queen’s Theatre for the 1712–13 season would have included the oboists John Ernest Galliard and John Christian Kytch. Both were continental musicians who had come to London in the years shortly before Handel’s arrival; these oboists would also have played recorder and flute parts as required. Galliard—German-born but the son of a French wig-maker—was trained as an oboist in the court orchestra in his native Celle. In 1706 he moved to London where he worked as a chamber musician, organist and composer; he also translated Pier Francesco Tosi’s famous treatise on singing into English and was a founding member of the Academy of Ancient Music. Handel composed several plaintive oboe obbligato parts for Galliard in Teseo, so it is likely he would also have played similar parts in Il pastor fido. Kytch was probably Dutch, and had worked at the Queen’s Theatre as a bassoonist since about 1708; he was named in Handel’s score of Rinaldo as the bassoon soloist in ‘Venti turbini, prestate’ (adapted from Apollo’s ‘Mie piante correte’). From 1712 Kytch played oboe alongside Galliard; a few years later he was one of the highest-paid musicians in the service of the Earl of Carnarvon at Cannons, where he would have played the lyrical oboe parts in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Esther and various church anthems. After his death in 1738, the destitution of his family inspired professional musicians to establish the Fund for Decay’d Musicians or their Families—the organization that evolved into the Royal Society of Musicians.

Such connections between Handel and instrumentalists working in the opera house remind us that the typical Baroque composers did not tend to write abstract music, but almost always tailor-made new music for real people who they knew and worked with. This is presumably also the case with two ‘Arias’ for wind ensemble composed at some point during the mid-1720s. Both in F major and scored for two oboes, two horns and a bass instrument (presumably bassoon), it is likely that these were written as concert recital pieces for the woodwind and horn players in the orchestra at the opera house (renamed the King’s Theatre when the Elector of Hanover became King George I in 1714). HWV 410 is modelled after Arcane’s aria ‘Benché tuoni e l’etra avvampi’ from Teseo. Maybe the oboists also had something to do with Handel’s composition of these two little wind-ensemble pieces about a decade later, and perhaps the dexterous natural horn parts were played by two of the four players required for Giulio Cesare in Egitto (first performed 20 February 1724).

David Vickers 2016

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