Handel's Italian Cantatas Shine and Sigh

From last week's contemporary realities, as viewed through the lens of David Chesky, we move back in time to 1707–1710, when the emotionally overwrought women, mythological subjects, shepherds, shepherdesses, and nymphs of Handel Italian Cantatas were in vogue. If those subjects strike your fancy, and/or you love baroque artistry and great singing, this new Erato recording from Emmanuelle Haïm's Le Concert d'Astrée, French lyric coloratura soprano Sabine Devielhe, and Franco-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre belongs on your must-hear list.

The recording captures both women in delightfully fresh voice. Devieilhe, who was 33 when she recorded the solo cantata Armida Abbandonata, HWV 105 and joined with 25-year old Desandre for the often delightful Aminta e Fillide, HWV 83, has a voice with substantial body lower in the range and an astoundingly easy and free high extension. She also possesses the ability to transition from one register to the other via remarkably fleet coloratura that seems motivated more by emotion than show. Hers may not be the tortured soul of Callas's Medea, for example—the voice is far more rooted in light than in dramatic darkness, albeit not as sparkly as some light French coloraturas of old—but for the solo roles of Handel and other composers, specifically French, who had this kind of voice in mind, she is a major award-winning find.

Former dance student Desandre, whose artistry confirms why she, too, has already won multiple awards, has a light high mezzo that sounds at ease in soprano roles. Her emotional range is large, enabling her to deliver convincingly impassioned outpourings with ease. That's another way of saying that she's pretty darn fabulous with fury. Neither of these women is as out of the box emotionally or as technically showy as mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, whose breathtaking new Vivaldi disc I review in the March print issue, but taken on their own terms, they're two of the best young female baroque soloists now before us. (Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth, whom I heard in Paris in a duo recital with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, is another.)

Given that I received pre-issue liner notes whose pdf pages were arranged in a most curious scroll backwards, skip-this-and-look-for-that order, I spent most of my listening concentrating on Devielhe and Desandre's perfectly produced voices, impeccable technique, and sheer love of singing. Around them, Haïm's small baroque band works wonders. Catch Atsushi Sakai's furious cello in La Lucrezia, or the beauty that the small ensemble of violinists David Planier and Agnieszka Rychlik, along with Sakai, double bassist Nicola dal Maso, and lutenist Thomas Dunford bring to the other work on the 2-CD program, Handel's appropriately plaintive Trio Sonata in b, Op.2/1 HWV 386b.

Recorded in the 125-year old Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban, Paris, the sound in 24/96 is quite good if not exactly demonstration class. Instrumental bass lines are full and firm, and voices fly free. If you care to hear people sigh, suffer, and occasionally celebrate in baroque flights rather than rap out their fury in beat-driven fights—or if you're drawn to both forms of emoting— this one's for you.

jimtavegia's picture


Graham Luke's picture

...wind-machine blown hair for selling classical records. The music must be more...er...ethereal, right...?

soundhound's picture

Although the YouTube clip sounds passable on my nearfield speakers, I'm really not surprised that this recording is "not exactly demonstration class" with the forest of microphones apparent. This lovely music and location scream for a nice, clean and well thought out minimalist microphone technique which reveals the *natural* ambience of the sound acoustically mixing in space, not in some mixing console.

Oh well.....