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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Nine German Arias

[I] "Neun Deutsche Arien"
Marie Friederike Schöder, soprano
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle
rec: August 26 - 29, 2016, Neumarkt (D), Historischer Reitstadel
Accent - ACC 24326 (© 2017) (62'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Xenia Löffler, recorder, oboe; Daniel Deuter, violin; Bernhard Hentrich, cello; Stefan Maass, Stephan Rath, lute; Tobias Schade, harpsichord

[II] "Neun Deutsche Arien - Brockes Passion"
Ina Siedlaczek, soprano
Lautten Compagney
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner
rec: June 20 - 22, 2016, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Audite - 97.729 (© 2017) (64'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Mathias Kiesling, transverse flute; Markus Müller, oboe; Monika Fischalel, bassoon; Swantje Hoffmann, Daniel Deuter, violin; Lea Rahel Bader, viola da gamba, cello; Loredana Gintoli, harp; Hans-Werner Apel, Wolfgang Katschner, lute; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ

[III] "German Arias"
Fritz Spengler, alto
André Hinderlich, reciter
Ensemble ContraPunct_us
Dir: Christian Voß
rec: Oct 3 - 10, 2015, Berlin-Wegendorf, Vierseithof
Klanglogo - KL1520 (© 2017) (68'48")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Elisabeth Wirth, recorder; Christian Voß, Coline Ormond, violin; Anna Kaiser, viola; Karl Simko, cello; Fred Uhlig, violone; Jakob zur Horst-Meyer, harp; Venicius Perez, theorbo; Manuel Dahme, harpsichord; Philipp Lamprecht, percussion

George Frideric HANDEL: Brockes-Passion (HWV 48) (Brich mein Herz, zerfließ in Tränen; Meine Laster sind die Stricke; Wisch ab der Thränen scharfe Lauge; Sünder, schaut mit Furcht und Zagen; Was Bärentatzen, Löwenklauen; Jesu! Jesu, dich mit unsern Seelen zu vermählen) [II]; [Nine German Arias] Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen (HWV 203); Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften (HWV 208); Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden (HWV 210); In den angenehmen Büschen (HWV 209); Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer (HWV 202); Meine Seele hört im Sehen (HWV 207); Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise (HWV 206); Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken (HWV 204); Süßer Stille, sanfte Quelle (HWV 205)
Sonata for violin and bc in g minor, op. 1,6 (HWV 364) [I]; [Three pieces for a musical clock, arr for two lutes] A Voluntary or a Flight of Angels (HWV 600); Aria in C (HWV 597); Gigue in C (HWV 289) [I]
Adam KRIEGER (1634-1666): Der Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nacht [1]; Ein Freund, ein Trunk, ein Lieb, ein Sprung [1]; Wer freudig ist, auch gerne küsst [1]; Wohl dem, der sich vergnügt [1] [III]
Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1628-1680): Die Fechtschule, balletto a 4 in G [III]

Source: [1] Adam Krieger, Neue Arien in 6 Zehen eingetheilet, 1667

Nine German Arias

The popularity of Handel's works written under the influence of the Italian style have largely overshadowed his compositions on German text. He didn't write many of them, but at least the Brockes Passion is a substantial work, and doesn't deserve to be neglected. Its libretto is from the pen of Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), a then famous poet in Germany. Handel was only one of several composers who used this libretto for a Passion oratorio, among them Mattheson, Keiser and Telemann.

It is not the only work on texts by Brockes which Handel set to music. In 1721 Brockes published a collection of poems under the title Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, in which the texts were divided into recitatives, arias and duets, which shows that he wanted them to be set to music. An extended edition was printed in 1724, and in 1727 a second volume was published, which included ten arias from the first volume. It included the statement that the "world-famous virtuoso, Mr Hendel, has set the same to music in a most special manner". The composer must have used the edition of 1724, as one of his arias, Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer, was not in the first edition.

The content reflects the spirit of the time, as it praises God's presence in nature. A couple of lines from some of these poems make that very clear. Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise, for instance, begins thus: "Sing, my soul, in praise of God, who in so wise a manner makes all the world so beautiful". And Meine Seele hört im Sehen says: "My soul hears, through seeing, how all things rejoice and laugh to magnify the Creator". It is a mistake to label these thoughts as 'pantheism', as I read somewhere. The idea that nature reflects God's greatness is firmly rooted in the Bible. At the same time it is true that Brockes was a representative of the German Enlightenment, one of whose features was a strong interest in nature in general and in nature as a manifestation of God's presence in particular. Many compositions from around this time are evidence of that. Another feature is its moralistic character which is reflected in texts from the first half of the 18th century. Brockes' poems are no exception, as Die ihr aus dunkeln Grüften proves: "You who from dark vaults dig out useless mammon, behold what riches await you here in the open air. Do not say: it's merely light and colour. It cannot be cointed and locked up in coffers". In her recording Marie Friederike Schöding divided the arias in three groups: "morality", the adoration of Nature" and "quiet desire and love". It is notable that the arias are not intended as a cyle; they were only publised together unter the title of Neun Deutsche Arien in 1921.

Handel has only set single stanzas as independent arias; there are no duets or recitatives. All arias are written in dacapo form, with the exception of In den angenehmen Büschen, which has two sections but no repeats. In all arias the soprano is supported by the basso continuo, and one instrument. The latter is not specified, and performers have the freedom to choose which instrument they prefer. Some performers use the same instrument in all the arias. In that case the only options are the violin and the oboe, as the bottom C in Süße Stille is not playable on the transverse flute. However, as the arias are not intended as a cycle there seems to be no objection against using different instruments. Marie Friederike Schöder and the Batzdorfer Hofkapelle use mainly an oboe and a violin; in one case the violin is joined by a recorder, playing colla parte. On the last aria in the programme, Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle, I am pretty sure to have heard a transverse flute, playing with the violin, but the list of players does not mention a flautist. Ina Siedlaczek and Wolfgang Katschner decided to use transverse flute, oboe and violin, both in alternation and together.

Handel did not publish his German arias, and one may wonder why he did compose them. The fact that they are on German texts, excludes the possibility that he wrote them for some singer he worked with, for instance in performances of his operas. They can only be intended for the German market. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that they were written for amateurs rather than professional singers. This has to have consequences for the way they are performed. In his liner-notes Wolfgang Katschner writes: "The continuo is shared by organ, harpsichord, harp, lute, theorbo, bassoon and cello, providing a richly sonorous base for the texts and melodies of the solo parts." Fortunately not all these instruments are played together. Even so, one may wonder whether amateurs had all of them at their disposal.

As far as the interpretation of the vocal part is concerned, virtuosic ornamentation and cadenzas should be avoided. The two sopranos seem to realize that, although Ms Schöder's ornamentation is sometimes a bit overdone, for instance in the dacapo of Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken. In general she should have been a bit more moderate. Ina Siedlaczek behaves almost impeccably in this department; only in the same aria I just mentioned her cadenza extends the range of her part. Fritz Spengler, on the other hand, behaves like an opera singer. He adds loads of virtuosic ornaments, more than once crosses the boundaries of his part and goes regularly overboard in his cadenzas. In the last of the arias in his programme, Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erde, he ends with the highest note in his tessitura. I find this utterly tasteless.

His performance is one of extremes anyway. Küft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer is extremely slow; the music almost comes to a standstill. He needs 7'23" here; in comparison Schöder takes 6'01" and Siedlaczek just 5'13". The latter seems the most natural tempo. Süße Stille is another example of an aria, where the tempo is too slow. Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise may be characterised by "jubilant cheerfulness", as Bernhard Schrammek writes in his liner-notes to the Accent disc, but that is no reason for such an extreme treatment of the rhythm and an almost percussion-like accentuation in the basso continuo. Obviously the performance of these arias in the soprano range by a male alto is one of the most notable features of Spengler's performance. There are several singers who are able to sing in the soprano range, with mixed success. Spengler has the tessitura to sing these arias at their natural pitch, but the higher notes often sound rather strained and are not very pleasant to the ear. As a result his diction, which leaves something to be desired anyway, seriously suffers. I have not enjoyed a single aria from the set in his performance.

The two ladies do much better, although I am not that impressed by Marie Friederike Schöder. She has a nice voice, but her interpretation is a bit bland. I found little of her singing really appealing. The rhythms are not very pronounced, and her slight vibrato doesn't make things better. Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen is one of the better parts of her performance. The peacefulness in the B part of In den angenehmen Büschen comes off well, but the contrast within this aria is underexposed. Ina Siedleczak does better here; in fact, if we consider the three recordings under review here as immediate competitors, she comes out as the winner on all accounts. She has the most beautiful voice, and she is by far the most stylish. She avoids vibrato, has the most convincing tempi, her articulation is excellent, and her dynamic shading is subtle, but effective. To date, her performance is one of the best available, only comparable to previous recordings by Emma Kirkby.

As the arias take about 45 minutes in total, any recording of these pieces needs additional material. In this regard the present three discs are very different. The Batzdorfer Hofkapelle adds one of Handel's sonatas for violin and bc, nicely played by Daniel Deuter. This seems a rather logical choice, considering the important role of the violin in the arias. The inclusion of three of Handel's pieces for musical clocks is far less obvious. These curious pieces are played here on two lutes. They are nice additions to the programme, and played well, but I would like to hear them on the mechanical instruments, for which they were intended.

Wolfgang Katschner came up with a very different solution: arias from the Brockes-Passion. This seems a logical choice, considering that Brockes was responsible for the texts of the German arias and the Passion. On the other hand, the isolation of single arias from such a work is rather unsatisfying, because of a lack of context. That is expecially the case as the text of the Brockes Passion is not generally known, in contrast to, for instance, that of Bach's St Matthew Passion. That said, Ina Siedlaczek sings the arias beautifully and with stylistic sensitivity. Thanks to her excellent diction and articulation she can sing the aria 'Was Bärentatzen, Löwenklauen' at high speed. Here, like in the German arias, the text is perfectly intelligible. The instrumental parts have been arranged, something I don't particularly like, even though the Lautten Compagney plays very well, like in the German arias.

Fritz Spengler's interpretation of Handel's German arias is no match for the recordings of the two sopranos, or any other recording I have heard previously. The rest of the programme is also rather unsatisfying. It is a bit of a mystery why an instrumental piece by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer has been selected. The liner-notes don't deliver any explanation. One could probably argue that its theatrical character fits Spengler's operatic approach of the German arias. The playing is certainly theatrical, but I don't like the addition of percussion to the score of two violins, viola and bc required by the composer. It is the challenge to the interpreters - and certainly meant as such by Schmelzer - to realise the effect with strings alone. I also don't understand the participation of a recorder.

The disc ends with four songs by another composer of the 17th century, and therefore stylistically very different from Handel. Spengler sings four arias from a collection of fifty for voice(s), two violins and bc, which Adam Krieger published in Dresden in 1667. He was one of the last great composers of songs in the vernacular. At the end of the 17th century this genre was overshadowed by the Italian-style cantata. In content they are rather popular, and from that angle a performance by a voice like Spengler's works rather artificial and unnatural.

To sum up, Ina Siedlaczek and the Lautten Compagney come out as the clear winners here, despite some points of criticism. Marie Friederike Schöder is a bit disappointing; the fine playing of the Batzdorfer Hofkapelle can't really save that disc. Fritz Spengler and the Ensemble ContraPunct_us are disappointing, and often even pretty annoying.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Marie Friederieke Schöder
Ina Siedleczak
Fritz Spengler
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle
Lautten Compagney

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