Saturday, 30 June 2012

I'd rather turn myself into a tree...

Albani, Apollo and Daphne

Many and various are the unfamiliar delights in Handel's gargantuan output. I've been getting to know one such piece, his dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne, HWV122. Though styled a 'dramatic cantata' this early masterpiece is more of a miniature opera, even though it has no overture and only two singers - a soprano and a bass. 

Apollo's first aria Pende il ben dell' performs some of the missing overture's function as it first introduces the orchestra, including in the prelude solo introductory bows for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello. The opening tune is taken up and turned (with a little tweaking) into a swinging, triple-time tune for the bass. The bass part is written to convey authority and virtuosity and interacts pleasingly with the 'solo bows' when they return.

After this satisfying start comes the delightful Spezza l'arco e getta l'armi - an eager number for Apollo. This is a hunting aria par excellence with clarion call-style themes and some vocal jumping-over-hedges along the way. The first sounds we hear are a pair oboes playing the loveable main tune over a running bassoon line. The strings complete each phrase decisively. Voice and oboes then entwine with delicious results. What an aria!

And if you agree that Spezza l'arco e getta l'armi is a wonderful Handel number, just wait till you hear Felicissima quest'alma, Dafne's first aria. This is a very beautiful, peaceful pastoral piece in sicilienne form whose opening sounds - a limpid flute solo over serenade-like pizzicati and a discreet drone effect - make me sigh with pleasure. The flute continues to serve as an obbligato throughout, duetting with the soprano's no less limpid line and the serenade-like textures return at all the main junctions of its da capo form.

By way of contrast her next aria Ardi, adori, e preghi in vano is vigorous and driven by an urgent bass-line. Singer, oboe and strings unite to win us over with attractive melody. The first of the cantata's duets Una guerra ho dentro il seno is no less vigorous, as the strings make clear straight away. The bouncy tune they announce has a rhythm which dominates the duet. Apollo's charming aria Come rosa in su la spina continues at the same pace.

Dafne's aria Come in Ciel benigna stella is another of the work's highlights, with a dancing rhythm and a dominating seven-note motif that runs throughout the accompaniment. The long notes of the singer's lovely opening melody counter the underlying rhythm deliciously. The oboe sometimes plays in parallel with the singer here and later engages in delightful echoing exchanges. The lilt of the middle section only adds to the number's charm.

The second duet Deh, lascia addolcire dramatically contrasts the slow-moving lyrical mellifluousness of Apollo (set in the minor, with solo flute and cello supplying gentle, melancholy support) with Dafne's fieriness (fast-moving, with full scoring). 

Apollo's Mie piante correte includes a virtuoso part for solo violin, though it's fair to say that both the bassoon and the strings are stretched too here. The bass has a heroic and dramatic part which stirs the blood of this particular listener.

The god's closing aria Cara pianta is an utter contrast - melancholy and beautiful. Oboes and bassoon again greet us, wistfully, with the aria's melody before they repeat it with strings. The singer expands the melody's lyricism touchingly, with string support and woodwind punctuation. A haunting finish to an irresistible work.

I'll let Wikipedia tell the story:

Apollo, having released Greece from tyranny by killing the menacing dragon Python, is in an arrogant mood. He boasts that even Cupid’s archery is no match for his own bow and arrow; however his conceit is shattered upon spying the lovely Daphne. Apollo is instantly smitten and plies his full range of charms in an attempt to win Daphne’s favour. Naturally distrustful, she rejects his advances, stating that she would rather die than lose her honour. Apollo becomes more forceful in insisting that she yield to his love and physically takes hold of her. When all seems lost, Daphne manages to escape his clutches by transforming herself into a laurel tree. Displaying great sorrow, Apollo states that his tears will water her green leaves and that her triumphant branches will be used to crown the greatest heroes.

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