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Ensemble Marsyas - Handel: Apollo e Dafne - MusicWeb International

26 October 2016
MusicWeb International
Gary Higginson

Ovid's "Metamorphoses" have inspired hundreds of artists over a long period. This was particularly intense during the years between the early sixteenth century and the mid-nineteenth. It seems that everyone with any sort of education during that period would have read the book. Shakespeare dipped into it and on occasion so did opera composers.

In truth the story of Apollo and Daphne could never be made long enough or dramatic enough for a full-scale opera. That is why Handel's work is entitled a ‘Cantata for soprano, bass and orchestra'. Apollo who boasts in the first aria and recitative of his defeating of the people of Delphi is suddenly so captivated by Daphne's singing that he immediately wants to make love to her. He tries to entice her, then to force himself on her but she rebuffs him each time and he is devastated. At the climax, just as you think that she might be forced to give in, she conveniently turns herself into a laurel bush. Apollo, his head clad in laurel is repentant and vows that he will always hold her in his memory.

There are three definite musical highlights. The first is Daphne's aria, which introduces the audience and Apollo to us: ‘Felicissima quest'alma' (‘Most blest is the soul that only loves freedom'). Here her long, lyrical line is wedded to a delicious oboe part with pizzicato strings. It intoxicates all who listen. The second is the duet ‘Una guerra ho dentro il seno'. Apollo sings ‘A war rages in my heart that I can no longer quench' in which the two characters almost seem to chase each other around an imaginary stage. Thirdly there's Apollo's final aria ‘Cara pianta' with what David Vickers beautifully describes in his detailed and fascinating booklet notes, as having "spellbinding trio passages for two oboes and bassoon".

This is typical early Handel: full of imagination and colour, the sort of music which quickly made his reputation.

I find Mhairi Lawson ideal as Dafne; she has caught the measure of the expressive qualities required and is also able to articulate the somewhat fragile nature of Daphne's plight. All this is contrasted with her determination and with a variety of vocal colours. Callum Thorpe is a little too 'operatic'. He has too big a voice for this more intimate cantata form, only relenting for the last aria. Peter Whelan's Ensemble Marsyas, formed in 2011, are precise and sensitive and tempi appear ideally judged.

As mentioned in the booklet when it came to his oboe writing Handel seems to have cherished the playing of one John Ernest Galliard. Now it's true that the cantata was probably originally composed whilst the composer was in Hanover (1711-12) but Handel had met Galliard on a previous London excursion. Once back in London and working at the Queen's Theatre he may well have had Galliard in mind in his writing for the oboe in Il pastor fido. It contains much lovely music for the instrument especially in its Overture. The Overture is astonishingly long consisting of an overture and then five movements of beautifully balanced, contrasting tempi.

Also recorded here are two ‘Arias'. These rather undistinguished theatre compositions from c.1725 are for wind and percussion but as no flute parts are scored then the two oboes (again) dominate the upper texture.

The accompanying booklet comes with all texts well translated, an essay entitled ‘Handel in Hanover: Some Speculation' and photographs of the artists with their biographies. The Edinburgh church in North Leith which is a beautiful classical structure, ideal for this repertoire, must be in a very quiet suburb. It adds a lovely resonance especially to the instrumental work.    
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Ensemble MarsyasEnsemble Marsyas
George Frideric HandelGeorge Frideric Handel
Peter WhelanPeter Whelan
Handel: Apollo e DafneHandel: Apollo e Dafne