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

[A] Monika Mauch, soprano
L'arpa festante
Dir.: Rien Voskuilen
rec: April 14 - 16, 2008, Zwerenberg, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.426 (© 2008) (57'56")

[B] Carolyn Sampson, soprano
The King's Consort
Dir.: Robert King
rec: October 2006, Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, The Menuhin Hall
Hyperion - CDA67627 (© 2007) (69'22")

[A,B] George Frideric Handel: 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);
[A] Johann Mattheson (1681 - 1764): Die geheimen Begebenheiten Henrico IV. Königs von Castilien und Leon oder Die getheilte Liebe: 'Ein hoher Geist'; 'Endlich muss man doch entdecken'; 'In deinem schönen Mund'
[B] George Frideric Handel: Sonata for oboe and bc in c minor (HWV 366); Sonata for oboe and bc in F (HWV 363a); Sonata for oboe and bc in B flat (HWV 357)

[AF] Monika Kleinle, transverse flute; Henriette Boehm, Luise Baumgartl, oboe; Christoph Hesse, Michael Gusenbauer, violin; Max Bock, viola; Gregor Anthony, cello; Haralt Martens, violone; Hugh Sandilands, theorbo, guitar; Masako Art, harp; Rien Voskuilen, harpsichord, organ
[KC] Alexandra Bellamy, oboe; Stéphanie-Marie Degand, violin; Jonathan Cohen, cello; Lynda Sayce, theorbo; Robert King, harpsichord, organ

Many works by Handel are more frequently performed and recorded than the German Arias. I have been attending concerts with early music for over 30 years now, and I can't remember having ever heard one aria from this set. There are several recordings in the catalogue but I don't get the impression they are often played in radio programmes. For some reason they seem not to have great appeal to the public at large. They are, however, quite interesting in that they shed a light on an aspect of Handel's career which has been overshadowed by his years in Italy and England. They show he never lost contact to the country where his roots were: Germany. They were not composed, as one may expect, before he travelled to Italy, but in the 1720's, when he was an already established composer in England.

The texts were written by Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680- 1747), a then famous poet in Germany. He is known first and foremost as the author of the oratorio libretto Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus. It was set to music by a number of German composers, like Telemann, Mattheson, Stölzel, Keiser and Fasch, and Bach used parts of it in his St John Passion. Among the composers setting this text to music was also George Frideric Handel: it seems he composed his Brockes-Passion in 1716 and sent it to Hamburg to be performed. 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 show that he wanted them to be set to music. An extended edition was printed in 1724, and this is the edition Handel must have used, 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".

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. Here a violin is used, and although Handel didn't specify what instrument he had in mind, David Vickers, in his programme notes of the Hyperion recording, argues that the transverse flute wouldn't be able to play the bottom C in Süße Stille. This, of course, is based upon the idea that in all arias the obbligato instrument should be the same. That seems plausible, but I don't think that is absolutely necessary.

The performances reviewed here have both their merits. Carolyn Sampson sings well and she seems to have a good understanding of the texts. Her pronunciation is pretty good as well. But I don't like her continuous vibrato which is historically indefensible. In this respect Monika Mauch is much better; stylistically she is much closer to what we know about the baroque style of singing. Otherwise her performance is disappointing. These arias may be called German Arias, but they are very much Italian in style, and that seems to give Ms Mauch some problems. In most arias she is too introverted and too modest; in comparison Ms Sampson sings with more zest and imagination. The most intimate arias come off best in Ms Mauch's performance.

I have to say, though, that both sopranos are easily beaten by Emma Kirkby in her recording with London Baroque (EMI, 1984). The tempi are generally faster and as a result the rhythmic pulse is much stronger. Ms Kirkby's diction is sharper and her articulation and dynamic differentation are better. This is mirrored by the playing of the violin part. London Baroque's Ingrid Seifert plays with much more variety than Stéphanie-Marie Degand, even though her playing isn't bad at all. Rien Voskuilen has opted for not only a variety of instruments to perform the instrumental part, in some they are realised with two instruments, and in one aria the instrumental part is played with the right hand on the harpsichord. I am not sure that this is the right thing to do, and I don't understand the reasoning behind this.

In addition The King's Consort performs the three sonatas for oboe and bc which are of established authenticity. David Vickers rightly writes that Handel's chamber music is "a quagmire of doubtful authenticity and numerous sonatas assigned to the wrong solo instrument". He also refers to the fact that Handel considered the oboe his favourite instrument. It is a little surprising then that he has composed so few for the oboe as solo instrument, although his vocal and orchestral works contain many splendid obbligato parts for it. The three sonatas on this disc are certainly splendid as well, and Alexandra Bellamy plays them quite beautifully, although the menuet of the Sonata in F is a little flat. It would have helped if the unstressed notes had been played shorter.

Monika Mauch sings three arias from an opera by Johann Mattheson. The reason is that these arias for some time were considered to be written by Handel at an early age, when he worked in Hamburg. They are delightful pieces and here Ms Mauch apparently feels much more comfortable as her fine performances prove. But to recommend a whole disc just because of three short arias - taking less than 8 minutes - is going a bit too far. If one looks for a good performance of Handel's German Arias the recording of Emma Kirkby and London Baroque is the one to go for.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

The King's Consort
Monika Mauch

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