Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Handel in Italy: Carolyn Sampson and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra

19 January 2023

Pyrotechnic Handel at Wigmore Hall.

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

It’s arguable that, in terms of his music, Handel was neither a German composer nor an English one, but an Italian, as his five years spent in Italy from the age of 21 would provide the grounding for much of his compositional style, and would certainly establish him, on his arrival in England, as a popular composer of opera, the entertainment so beloved of the bon ton.

Thursday evening at Wigmore Hall saw a presentation by Finnish Baroque Orchestra and soprano Carolyn Sampson of three of Handel’s secular cantatas from his time in Rome, together with instrumental sonatas by father and son Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti in a slightly confused programme subtitled ‘A Soul in Love’ that might have made connections around Rome were it not for the keyboard sonata, which had been written during in Scarlatti’s later life in Madrid.

Sampson is well known as an interpreter of Baroque works (she has recorded and performed with the likes of The English Concert and Bach Collegium Japan), so it was slightly disappointing that for her opening cantata, Alpestre monte, she seemed to have lost much of the clarity of tone that she is famous for: while the notes were all true, the opening chest voice passages were as rich and solid as you’d like, and there was no shortage of dramatic interpretation of the florid text, there was considerably more vibrato in her voice than expected, particularly at the pianissimo entry of the aria ‘Io so ben’.

“…a presentation by Finnish Baroque Orchestra and soprano Carolyn Sampson… in a slightly confused programme…”

For Un’alma innamorata and Tra le fiamme, however, this apparent insecurity around production had all disappeared, and we were treated to her customary bell-like sound, enriched and sweetened by the smallest amount of vibrato, and given force and agility where the music demanded. It is in Handel’s early, Italian, works (the setting of Dixit Dominus, for example, or Saeviat tellus, written for the Carmelite church) that we can experience his youthful need to show off to his wealthy Roman patrons through some sensational writing, and so it is with these cantatas. Sampson and the orchestra embraced this with the dark orchestral and vocal textures at the opening of Un’alma…, the sensitively controlled lyrical violin passage that introduces the aria ‘Quel povere core’ and the perfectly co-ordinated (both for timbre and timing) rapid duet work between violin and voice in ‘Io godo’. The whole of Tra le fiamme – from the rhythmic sonority provided by the basso continuo in the jolly compound-time opening, to the clever summoning of breezes from the two flutes in ‘Voli per l’aria’ and the breathtaking running vocal passages from Sampson – was an exercise in consummate understanding of Handel’s exuberant word painting.

The instrumental items (a movement from Handel’s C minor trio sonata, sonatas in A for two flutes, two violins and continuo and in A minor for recorder, strings and continuo by Alessandro Scarlatti, and Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A for keyboard) were also played with a surety of the style and with élan. The entry of the flutes in the ‘Grave’ of the first of the Scarlatti sonatas was full of woody delight; the second of these orchestral sonatas demonstrated Scarlatti’s contrasts of instrumental texture to the full: the ‘Largo e piano’ movement, in which the unison violins provided a high bass line to the flute was particularly striking. Marianna Henriksson’s interpretation of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonata Kk. 208 was excellent, although it’s a rather academically stately example from Scarlatti’s oeuvre and one wished something rather more exciting had been chosen.

The concert was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on the Radio 3 website.

buy Finnish Baroque Orchestra MP3s or CDs
Spotify Finnish Baroque Orchestra on Spotify

More on Finnish Baroque Orchestra
Handel in Italy: Carolyn Sampson and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra