I happened to be sitting next to a pleasant, talkative stranger at a concert recently, who said exactly that: "Baroque music wasn't especially passionate, was it?" Naturally, I almost swallowed my program. But when I recovered, i suggested to her that she listen to a recording of Handel' s "La Lucrezia" or "Agrippina condotta a morire" as a way to re-examine her impression. That suggestion came to mind because of the recent release of Volume VII of the Italian Cantatas of Handel, performed by La Risonanza. On that CD, Roberta Invernizzi sings a flamboyantly passionate interpretation of the "Agrippina" cantata.
And then I got to thinking of other performances I might have recommended. I went to my CD racks and found, gasp!, that I have nine performances of the cantata "La Lucrezia", sung by: Marilyn Horne, Janet Baker, Eva Mei, Julianne Baird, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Magdalena Kozena, Jennifer Griesbach, Roberta Invernizzi, and male alto Gerard Lesne, all on different disks and all flamingly passionate, in addition to this one by Veronique Gens. Wow! And I like them all, though not equally.
Les Basses Reunies is an ensemble built around the cellist Bruno Cocset, and one of the first things one hears in this performance is the assertive resonance of the cello in the realization of the basso continuo. That differentiates this interpretation for others, in which the harpsichord and/or the theorbo are more prominent. In other words, no two performances of these cantatas will sound the same, either the singing or the instrumental support. If you especially enjoy the cello, this is the choice for you!
Veronique Gens is unquestionably one of the super-stars of Baroque opera, and she sings these cantatas as she would the most dramatic arias of a Handel opera. In fact, she's featured on a musically fine DVD of Handel's opera Agrippina, a different composition from the cantata. On this CD, she sings three of the young Handel's Italian masterpieces: La Lucrezia, Agrippina condotta a morire, and Armida abbandonata. To my ears, the latter - Armida - suits Gens's voice and technique perfectly and thrills me the most of the three. Hers would be my first choice among the various 'Armida' recordings available.
As usual, there are several release of this performance on the market, with different covers. Shop carefully.