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London Early Opera performs a unique programme of Handel’s Italian-inspired works, devised by director Bridget Cunningham and featuring a unique family collaboration from world-renowned soprano sisters Sophie Bevan and Mary Bevan alongside their uncle, bass Benjamin Bevan.
Key to understanding Handel’s later successes, therefore, is the consideration of these fertile Italian years that comprised of not only opera and instrumental works but also, importantly, secular cantatas which were complete works in themselves and often also bore the seeds of later works. This programme explores key works from Handel’s Italian years including works that contain musical inspiration modern audiences recognise from later incarnations in operatic arias or the grand melodic lines of now-familiar oratorio favourites.
The composer Johann Mattheson wrote that Handel travelled with a companion Herr Von Benitz, who may have introduced him to society or been a patron, yet we hear nothing more of him and indeed records show that Handel himself saved 200 ducats for his venture. The intrigue does not end there: once in Italy, Handel was no servant to aristocratic households supporting musical activities, rather, he was a house-guest of several well-connected patrons who commissioned new works and presented their protégé to local society. We know little about Handel’s first port of call, Florence (or perhaps Venice as Mainwaring suggests) but it made a convenient break in the journey to Rome. And such an invitation to Florence may have come directly from Ferdinand de Medici and it is worth noting that Handel returned to that city the following summer to write an opera, a genre forbidden in Rome by Papal edict.
During his tour, Handel stayed largely in Rome with excursions to Florence, Naples and Venice as well as in the country at Vignanello and Cerveterei. The presence of marching armies in Italy in response to the lingering war of Spanish succession may have made travelling more than usually arduous since many small Italian states were hedging bets by active involvement or by simply attempting to preserve neutrality as was the case with Venice. Negotiating these political sensitivities would have preoccupied most travellers and may have also influenced Handel’s movements within Italy.
Handel arrived in Rome early in 1707 and he impressed his first patrons and supporters, Cardinal Carlo Colonna, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni with his keyboard playing and spectacular compositions. Despite Handel’s Lutheran faith and staunch Protestant upbringing, the most important compositions of his early months in Rome were for the Roman Catholic Church and they signify a determination to display a full range of compositional skills. It was probably Cardinal Colonna who commissioned the large-scale setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus, completed early in April 1707, as well as settings of two other Vesper psalms Laudate pueri in D major and Nisi Dominus during July. Since the papal ban did not extend to oratorio, by May 1707 Cardinal Pamphilli commissioned and wrote Handel’s first major libretto, the allegorical oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. This opportunity, more than most, possibly persuaded the composer to stay in Rome despite there being no opera house as such. Again, it is interesting that a young Lutheran composer should receive such hospitality and high profile commissions of key Latin texts from Catholic clergy and not be converted to Catholicism himself. Also worthy of note is how Handel set secular love poetry from his circle of Italian patrons and in doing so created music to which he returned many decades later.
It was through these Roman Cardinals that Handel also developed a network extending beyond the city limits. In particular, in Cardinal Ottoboni’s Palazzo della Cancelleria, Handel had access to a significant music library and opportunity to perform with the house band led by esteemed violinist Arcangelo Corelli. He also later met the influential Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani and Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli who also supported him. The rewards of such circles were not only financial, Handel enjoyed access to several of the finest harpsichords and organs and met many wonderful musicians such as Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti who showed mutual admiration for his work, and soprano Margherita Durastanti for whom Handel wrote many of his solo cantatas. Theirs was a lasting partnership, Handel and Durastanti continued to work together throughout their careers, notably in London.
Handel became a distinguished house guest, rather than a servant, to his most influential secular patron, the music loving dignitary, Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli who commissioned Handel to write La Resurezione the following Easter in 1708. In the same year, Ruspoli was made the first Prince of Cerveteri by Pope Clement XI in gratitude for funding mercenaries to defend the Papal States during the Spanish war. Ruspoli came from a Florentine banking family who settled in Rome and it is possible that a Florentine link enabled this particular contact. Ruspoli held a weekly conversazioni of the ‘Academie degli Arcadi’ a circle of noble dilettantes augmented by guests of the highest ranks of church or state from both Italy and abroad, and their musical and literary protégés like a Freemasonry of the Arts. Handel was also invited to follow Ruspoli to his country palace of Vignanello where he continued composing and performing whilst enjoying country festivities.
In seeking to understand the network of influences in operation at this time one is drawn into a web of social, political—and possibly sexual—narratives that underpin Handel’s musical watershed. These discs explore the young composer’s Italian years through an appreciation of his wide variety of musical styles: cantatas, sacred pieces, operatic works and instrumental compositions. Handel wrote prolifically during his stay in Italy, his output includes oratorios, operas, sonatas, instrumental works and sacred vocal masterpieces including over 100 cantatas. Handel was hugely inspired by the enormous reserve of talent in Italy and was inspired by the high calibre star singers to develop his aria style. It was a wonderful opportunity for Handel to write for voices of this quality and to encourage them to thrive and flourish as vocal personalities whilst sensitively support the individuality of his singers.
This disc gives a sample of some of Handel’s finest music for voice during his time in Italy and in doing so gathers together for the first time the internationally acclaimed soloists Sophie Bevan, Mary Bevan and Benjamin Bevan.
The Gloria is an ancient hymn of praise sung or recited during the Roman Catholic mass and this is Handel’s only setting of the Mass Ordinary for solo voice. It is scored for coloratura soprano with violins and basso continuo. Hearing Georg Philipp Telemann’s solo mass setting earlier in Hamburg may have inspired Handel and in turn, Handel’s Gloria was closely followed by Vivaldi’s choral setting of the Gloria in 1708.
Handel’s setting was rediscovered in 2001 in connection with a project underwritten by the German Research Society. Both score and parts belong to the Royal Academy of Music in London and are not in Handel’s hand. They are bound in a collection of Handel arias owned by singer and associate William Savage (1720-1789), and the extant manuscript was probably left to the Academy by Savage’s student R. J. S. Stevens upon the latter’s death.
Although Professor Hans Joachim Marx has identified the Gloria as an early work, questions still arise as to the purpose for which Handel may have composed it. It may even predate the composer’s arrival in Rome in 1707 and stem from earlier years in Germany. However, based on musical similarities it is possible that Handel wrote this in Rome with other Latin pieces during June of 1707 and it may have been used in the church at Vignanello, the country estate of his Roman patron, Marchese Ruspoli. The soprano Margherita Durastanti might have been the intended singer as she was also in the employment of the Marquis Ruspoli, although top B flats may have been too high for her (depending on pitch) so possibly a castrato performed it. The violin parts are also extremely important and dominant so was possibly written for the virtuosic Italian players Corelli or the Castrucci brothers.
Based on the Gloria’s orchestration (specifically, the lack of a viola), the punctuated character of the final Alleluia and the piece’s fresh exuberance, musicologists ascribe its compositional date to Handel’s 1707 sojourn in Rome. When questions lingered among scholars about the identity of the work’s composer, a number of compositional details, including the generous use of melodic and harmonic dissonance, all point to the young Handel. Also there are several later borrowings and similarities with his other works such as the Laudate pueri in D major, Nisi Dominus, the Utrecht Jubilate, Chandos Anthem O be joyful in the Lord and even the Coronation anthem The King shall rejoice.
All six movements from the Gloria are magnificent from the deeply expressive Qui tollis to the breathtakingly exuberant finale with the virtuosic Cum Sancto spritu. Handel interpreted the sacred texts literally in terms of poetic rhetoric, separating praise of God from pleas for the forgiveness of sins in other more pensive movements like the different characters Allegro and Penseroso in L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The resultant contrasts of mood as the piece progresses from movement to movement reinforce the work’s underlying formal grand structure for the Mass.
Passacaille from Rodrigo
In the summer of 1707, Handel was back in Florence doing something that he could not do in Rome, mainly writing an opera—Rodrigo (HWV5) or Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria (to overcome oneself is the greater victory). Despite it being unknown how this project came about, who commissioned it and what the circumstances were for the performance and presentation of it, working on Rodrigo was certainly a very important moment for Handel as he was learning cutting edge skills about the opera at this period.
Rodrigo is an opera in three acts and is an extremely engaging piece musically. The opera is based on the historical figure of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king of Hispania and the libretto was based on Francesco Silvani’s II duello d’Amore e di Vendetta (“The conflict between love and revenge”).
The first performance of Rodrigo took place in Florence in the Autumn of 1707 at the Teatro Cocomero and was Handel’s first opera written for performance in Italy. It was an instant success and Handel’s biographer Mainwaring testified to its favourable reception by noting that Handel ‘was presented with 100 sequins, and a service of plate.’ The stunning Passacaille, from the Overture was again probably written with one of his leading Italian violinists in mind as it has a solo violin part again reflecting the exuberant concerto like Italian style.
Bel piacere from Agrippina
In 1709 Handel travelled North to Venice as he received a commission from the leading Italian opera house, Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo theatre in Venice owned by the Grimani family. Handel was asked to write an opera and set Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s sensational libretti Agrippina to music. It is unknown where exactly Handel stayed in Venice and we currently have no documented evidence that Handel met Vivaldi there, although it is very likely, as both composers would have had a great curiosity for meeting other musicians.
Agrippina, Handel’s second Italian opera is a satirical comedy about sex, intrigue, treachery, jealousy, revenge, and the lust for power. It is set in ancient Rome at the time of the emperor Nero and shows amorality, frailty and idiosyncrasies of character. It was seen to portray Emperor Claudius as an oblique attack on the character of Pope Clement XI who frequently clashed politically with Grimani. With Grimani’s libretti of such a high standard with good poetry, Handel was able to develop his presentation of character with a wonderful humorous setting and an absolutely Shakespearian ability to understand and sympathise with his characters, reveal all their subtleties of human nature. The recitatives are sharply penned and the dramatic situations are brilliantly set up with a domination of arias over recitative.
Venice was the first place in Italy to run operas on a commercial basis for a public audience, rather than being supported by the munificence of nobles, clergy or princes. Agrippina opened the most popular carnival season and was an enormous success and ran for an unprecedented 27 performances. According to Mainwaring, enthusiastic audiences greeted every pause in the music with cries of ‘Viva il caro Sassone!’ (Long live the dear Saxon!) and Handel’s triumph before the international audience established a worldwide reputation. Interestingly Venice had suffered to some extent from trying to preserve neutrality during the Spanish war and so there were a particularly large number of diplomats working in Venice at that time. Among them, Prince Ernst Georg of Hanover, brother of the elector (the future George I of England), and the English ambassador, Charles Montague Duke of Manchester, both of whom may have invited Handel to visit their respective countries and helped pave the way for future work.
Despite its uncanny freshness, the music of Agrippina was not entirely new, some was borrowed from other composers and some was self borrowed, adapted and developed from earlier Italian works such as La Resurrezione and the chamber cantatas written in Florence and Rome. There are also a few quotes from Rodrigo. Yet few people in Venice would have heard this music before and as a whole, Agrippina shows an assured mastery of the Italian idiom, and musically it reflects character and dramatic context more than in Rodrigo.
The aria Bel piacere is sang by Poppea in Act III of Agrippina when, after much previous deception and plotting, Poppea’s love for Ottone is finally revealed. Poppea was originally sung by the Italian soprano Diamante Maria Scarabelli well known for her vocal range, high tessititura and virtuosity.
Sonata for a harpsichord with double keys in G major HWV579
This piece has long been attributed to the Italian period due to stylistic evidence although little is known about the circumstances of its composition. Certainly there are also a greater amount of keyboard works attributed to Handel’s previous years in Hamburg.
The primary source for this Sonata is the printed text in the spurious edition PIECES a un & Deux Clavecins COMPOSEES Par Mr HENDEL/ A AMSTERDAM / Chez Jeanne Roger, c.1720. It was engraved by Walsh in London but published by Roger. The piece is printed on four staves, without indication of which manual is the lower or upper. It is possible that it was intended for two harpsichords or indeed an instrument with two manuals of equal strength of sound, but different tones. Two-manual harpsichords seem to have been rare in Italy at this time, and it is possible that one of Handel’s patrons acquired one and asked him to compose for it and therefore Handel concluded with a display of virtuosity.
It is also possible that Handel might have played or improvised on this theme and that variations were subsequently worked up for the competition between him and Scarlatti described in Mainwaring’s Memoirs. Mainwairing’s anecdote relates that Handel and Scarlatti entered a musical contest with each other at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni, and that, despite a common consensus that they shared the palms on the harpsichord, Scarlatti generously acknowledged the Saxon’s superiority on the organ.
Handel’s mastery of the organ that brought him attention in Rome: a contemporary diarist Francesco Valesio wrote on 14 January 1707 that “There is lately arrived in this city a Saxon who is a most excellent player upon the harpsichord and composer of music and who today made great pomp of his virtue in playing upon the organ in the church of San Giovanni to the amazement of all.” Reputed to be the largest and most magnificent organ in Rome the instrument survives to this day.
It is not known what music Handel would have performed on either of those two historic occasions. No body of organ music by Handel—apart from the concertos composed later in England—survives in a recognisable form. If the competition with Scarlatti took place, it is possible that pieces were improvised and that Handel constructed those probable improvisations upon his own compositions using themes from sinfonias, overtures, arias or indeed themes from other composers rather than performing his keyboard works.
This Sonata, which is a fantasia, is later altered and reincarnated in the character Armida’s famous dramatic coloratura aria Vo’ far guerra, from Act II of his later opera Rinaldo (HWV7a) of 1711. This aria famously included a harpsichord obbligato part which offers an idea of what Handel would play and improvise during performances. In the third edition of the opera in June 1711, Walsh published ‘The Harpsicord Peice perform’d (sic)…perform’d by Mr Handel’ and the Sonata is an elaboration of this into a virtuoso solo piece. Showing the popularity of this work and inspiration, William Babell also wrote a virtuosic fantasy based on Vo’ far guerra (recorded by Bridget Cunningham on the CD Handel in Ireland also in this series).
Un pensiero nemico di pace from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
This was Handel’s very first allegorical oratorio set to a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili with a title that translates as “The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment” The work, comprising of two sections, was composed in the spring 1707 and premiered that summer in Rome.
In the libretto, Bellezza (Beauty) is tempted to become a disciple of Piacere (Pleasure) but eventually takes heed of the compassionate warnings of Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Disillusionment) that it is better to avoid sin and instead dedicate oneself to virtue and godliness. This aria Un pensiero nemico di pace with virtuosic violin writing comes in Part 1, of Il Trionfo when Bellezza is still furious with Tempo’s warnings.
Handel often had problems with singers but during rehearsals for Il Trionfo in Rome he apparently struggled with the violinist and celebrated leader of his orchestra and Ottoboni’s house band, Arcangelo Corelli. According to Mainwaring, Corelli told Handel he could not play the introduction or overture as it was written in the French style which he did not understand. Corelli does have French touches in his own music, so he would have actually known what Handel was doing, but despite this, Handel apparently seized Corelli’s violin and played the piece as he thought it should be performed.
As Corelli was one of the most influential composers of the time and also a virtuoso player, his musical impact was huge. Handel was deeply sensitive to his performers when writing instrumental Italian works and here he took the Corellian style on board and penned a more appropriate replacement overture.
Handel returned to this work 30 years later with a revised and expanded three section version Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità (HWV46b) and again much later when he was in poor health in 1757 (HWV71) with the ‘Triumph of Time and Peace’.
Cuopre tal volta il cielo
This tempestuous bass cantata was written in Naples, in 1708 several years after the earthquake. It was possibly written for the Neapolitan singer and priest, Antonio Manna the only named singer in the cast of the serenata, Aci, Galatea and Polifemo (HWV72) which was also performed in Naples in 1708. Handel was apparently delighted to write for Manna due to his huge range and formidable vocal dexterity. The tradition of contrabasso singing was extremely popular and is demonstrated in this cantata with robust bass notes teemed with the high baritone register which can skilfully be transposed up.
In this standard cantata setting of two arias and recitatives for bass, two violins and continuo, Handel shows a mastery of the cantata form influenced by dramatic arias. That the influence flows from opera to cantata demonstrates how the latter could be regarded as a serious form in themselves and not just short try outs for opera as is often assumed. Here, Handel’s word setting is delicately poised: the text ‘An unforeseen dark cloud may cover the sky’ tells us of a lover, who with a single dark look from the object of his desire, feels like a ship tossed about on the ocean. Images of nature serve as a metaphor for suffering and the text blends elements from classical mythology with nature to create subtle meanings and allusions beyond modern recognition.
The scene takes place in a tempest off the coast of Naples and commences with an introductory Accompagnato—a recitative portraying violent gusts of wind, churning waves, thunder and lightening. The figure of the ‘tridentato Dio’ emerges from the Ocean, depicting Neptune with his trident. The first aria depicts the stormy sea through wild triplet figures and disjunctive chords whilst the voice is forced to surmount gruelling triplets, coloratura and gigantic leaps throughout all registers. In the second recitative, a shepherd reveals that the ungracious glances and haughty words of his beloved are like thunder and lightning. In the final aria, he pleads for mercy from his enraged lover, demonstrating the refined Italian baroque method of resolving a relationship crisis.
As a musical painter of action, and emotion, especially in enormous tableaux, Handel was unmatched in his depictions of God as a creator and destroyer and of heaping up the waters of the sea. And here, as elsewhere, when Handel trembled and blew the musical world felt both the joy and terror of his music.
As Handel’s friend Alexander Pope wrote in the Dunciad:
“Giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briareus,
With a hundred hands,
To stir, to rouse,
To shake the soul he comes.”
Bridget Cunningham © 2015