HANDEL: “Arie per la Cuzzoni” – Hasnaa Bennani, sop./ Les Muffatti/ Peter Van Heyghen – Ramée

HANDEL: “Arie per la Cuzzoni” – Hasnaa Bennani, sop./ Les Muffatti/ Peter Van Heyghen – Ramée RAM 1501, 69:27 (2/26/16) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Enjoy Handel at his extrovert best, honoring one of his celebrated singers. 

Handel is at his extrovert best on a CD that compiles music made famous by one of his most celebrated and most notorious prima donnas, Francesca Cuzzoni, amidst a flurry of instrumental overtures and other brilliant, purely orchestral pieces.

The full details of La Cuzzoni’s fairy tale rise and dramatic fall – “of her last years, little is known, save that she returned to the continent where she lived a poverty-stricken existence, eking out a living, it is said, making buttons” – and more, are all laid out in Peter Wollny’s delicious liner notes. It was about La Cuzzoni the incomparable singer, and not the scandalous diva or Puccini-esque heroine, that Handel’s colleague Quantz wrote, “La Cuzzoni had a very pleasant and bright soprano voice, pure intonation and a beautiful trill. Her style of singing was artless and touching. Because of the dainty, pleasant and fluent way she performed them, her embellishments did not appear artificial; yet so tenderly did she sing them that she captured all listeners.”

In addition to the glorious, golden singing of French-Moroccan soprano Hasnaa Bennani, the disc features the 23 members of Brussels-based Les Muffatti, named in honor of the key role in history played by Georg Muffat (1653-1704), who not only wrote an important body of instrumental and early orchestral music but wrote manuals about how to play it. Based on their close and ongoing study of how Muffat’s manuals actually work when put into practice in the music of Handel, Les Muffatti deliver the theatrical color and energy so characteristic of Baroque music at its exhilarating best.

The recordings, which were made at the Begijnhofkerk in Sint-Truiden, 40 miles west of Brussels, deliver in a decorative, colorful way; lots of tone and shine to the brass, and wonderful low bass from the appropriate woodwinds and strings, against which Bennani sings effortlessly, gloriously. Track Two, a March from Scipione (1726), played loud, is good for checking out your system.

—Laurence Vittes

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