, December 2009
Handel’s cantata Apollo e Dafne dates from his Italian period when he wrote a large number of cantatas for his Italian patrons to perform in their palaces. They came in various shapes and sizes but Apollo e Dafne is one of the larger ones, lasting some 40 minutes. It tells the story of Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph Daphne in what might seem to be an operatic scene. But the cantata’s history is slightly more complex than it might seem. It was probably completed by Handel on his (brief) return to Hanover in 1710—before skidding off to London—so we are not sure exactly why Handel wrote the piece. It is generously scored: two soloists, strings, oboes, flute, bassoon and continuo. And the way Handel wrote it, means that it is hardly comparable to an operatic dry-run; the drama of the piece is far faster, far more concentrated than the leisurely pace of then contemporary operatic forms. So all we can really do, is sit back and enjoy the music. Though there is one further conundrum, despite its high quality Handel never seems to have re-used any of the music from the piece.
Like much of Handel’s similar output, this cantata has not been overly well represented on disc. Now the Phoenix Editions re-issuing of Westdeutschen Rundfunk broadcasts brings us a 1978 studio recording by the Capella Coloniensis with Helen Donath and Peter Christoph Runge. In fact it seems actually to have been recorded by SDR or at least used their studio.
Though the CD booklet talks about the orchestra being founded in 1954 to explore historical performance practice, I am unclear as to whether in 1978 they were playing on modern or historical instruments. The orchestral accompaniment on this disc is heavier and more robust than we would expect nowadays, but not outrageously so. The strings play with a crisp bounce and some air around the notes. Speeds are steady, but not too slow. You would never mistake this for a modern period performance and it is, I think, rather more solid than comparable performances of the period by the English Chamber Orchestra, with a far heavier bass line. But this is as much to do with stylistic preferences.
Much depends in this cantata on the soloists, and here we are very well served. Peter Christoph Runge is a very fine Apollo indeed. He has an attractively focused voice and is only slightly let down by the rather fuzzy nature of some of his runs. His second aria, Spezza l’arco, where he brags that his skill in archery is greater than Cupid’s, has rather a high tessitura which does tax him somewhat. But he is wonderfully urgent when pressing Dafne, as in his aria Come rosa (Just as the rose).
Dafne has the smaller role but she has to be alluring, quick to anger and untouchable, by turns. Here Helen Donath is all you could want, providing you like her slightly fluttery, tight vibrato-laden voice. Generally I shy away from too much vibrato in this sort of repertoire, but here I found Donath suited me admirably. She sings with a fine lyric line and is admirably supported by the various woodwind soloists. Her final aria, Come in ciel (As Neptune’s star in heaven), in which she counsel’s restraint to the urgent God, is lovely with all the delicacy of a chamber piece. This is followed by a striking duet in which, unusually for the baroque period, the two characters have are not balanced in their points of view; Apollo is lyrically pleading and Dafne is briskly refusing.
The cantata lacks an overture and most recordings add one from somewhere else. This disc also includes the overture from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, but rather perversely this is put at the end of the disc and frankly, I can’t find this over-steady performance much to get excited about.
This is a recording which does show its age but the performances of the two soloists are amply sufficient to lift it into the realms of the interesting and, perhaps, the desirable.