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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "The 'Amen, Alleluia' Arias"

Robert Crowe, soprano
Il Furioso

rec: Dec 15 - 18, 2016, Miami, Fla., Florida International University (Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Performing Arts Center Concert Hall)
Toccata Classics - TOCC 0337 (© 2017) (57'46")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: A Divine Song on the Passion of our Saviour; John CHURCH (1674-1741): A Divine Hymn; William CROFT (1678-1727): A Hymn on Divine Musick; George Frideric HANDEL: Amen No. 1 in F (HWV 270) (2 versions); Amen No. 2 in g minor (HWV 271); [Amen, Alleluia] No. 3 in C (HWV 275); Amen, Alleluia No. 4 in d minor (HWV 272); Amen, Alleluia No. 5 in G (HWV 273); Amen, Alleluia No. 6 in a minor (HWV 274); Amen, Alleluia No. 7 in F (HWV 276); Amen, Alleluia No. 9 in d minor (HWV 269); Halleluja! Amen No. 8 in F (HWV 277); Sixth Air (HWV deest); Suite in d minor (HWV 436) (minuet; variation); Giovanni PITTONI (c1635-1677): Sonata IX in d minor ([andante]; [andante]); Sonata X in G; Sonata XI in a minor ([andante])

Victor Coelho, David Dolata, theorbo; Juvenal Correa-Salas, organ

George Frideric Handel is one of the most frequently-recorded composers of the late baroque period. However, even in his oeuvre there are some pieces which are hardly known. The disc reviewed here offers a collection of such pieces. The booklet does not indicate whether they are recorded here for the first time, but that seems certainly possible. I at least have never heard any of his settings of the words "Amen, Alleluja". Obviously the booklet does not include the lyrics of these settings, as they include no other words than these two.

It is not known why Handel has written them. It has been suggested that they were of a pedagogical nature, maybe a kind of solfeggi, as so many were written during the 18th century. However, the liner-notes insist that these settings are certainly not suitable for beginners. Two settings include Handel's own ornamentation, which is very difficult to sing. In addition, the facts that these settings include instrumental interludes and that they are of considerably greater musical interest than the common solfeggi of the time, also points in another direction. They may have been written for a specific singer, but as the first date from around 1730 and the latest from the second half of the 1740s it is unlikely that they were intended for the same singer. Did they then have a liturgical function? The liner-notes state that "their florid, vituosic nature is stylistically incompatible with Anglican church music". That leaves the option of the Roman Catholic liturgy. In Handel's time public Catholic worship was forbidden, and if these pieces were intended for the Catholic liturgy they must have been sung in private. This is the reason that the other vocal items on this disc are also connected to music making in domestic surroundings.

The different dates of composition already indicate that the 'Amen, Alleluja' settings were not intended as a cycle, although the authors of the liner-notes point out that there are some similarities between the various settings. Stylistically they are comparable to Handel's solos in his oratorios. There are no obvious borrowings from other works from Handel's pen, although there seem to be some similarities with a couple of Italian cantatas.

The pieces by other composers included here are just as little known as Handel's 'Amen, Alleluja' settings. That obviously goes for A Divine Song on the Passion of our Saviour by an anonymous composer. It was included in the second volume of Harmonia Sacra, published by Henry Playford in 1693. The first volume dates from 1688 and both collections include sacred music for domestic performances. Such pieces found their origin in the Commonwealth period, when the performance of music in public worship was severely restricted. Sacred solo songs were also intended as alternatives to "frivolous secular music". The Divine Song opens with a recitative, which unfortunately is omitted in the booklet. It is followed by an aria which is dominated by descending figures, depicting the dripping of Jesus' blood.

William Croft is certainly a well-known name, but little of his output is available on disc. However, he was a major force in English music life of the early 18th century. He was closely connected to the Royal Chapel and wrote music for special occasions, until Handel gradually took over. A Hymn on Divine Musick is a kind of hybrid piece as it mixes sacred and secular elements. In the work-list in New Grove it is listed in the section 'secular vocal'. The text is an adaptation, possibly by Croft himself, of a poem by probably Robert Gould (1660?-1708/09), a prominent poet of the Restoration period. A recitative is followed by two arias, again with some meaningful text illustration.

Hardly known is John Church, who trained as a chorister at St John's College, Oxford. He sang as a tenor in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and in the Chapel Royal. A Divine Hymn was included in the second edition of the first volume of Playford's Harmonia Sacra, which dates from 1703. It is a setting of a text by a certain 'H.W.', included in Miscellanea Sacra, or, Poems on divine & moral subjects, edited by Nahum Tate and printed by Playford. However, the original text was drastically altered, probably by Church himself. It is about God's presence in nature, and the images in the text are illustrated in the music in a most eloquent manner.

It is a bit of a mystery to me what could have given the artists the idea to include pieces for theorbo by Giovanni Pittoni. Next to nothing is known about him, and he has no entry in New Grove. The Intavolatura di tiorba, Op. 2 seems to be his only extant work, which dates from 1669. This shows that they are from a different period. It would have been much more logical to select, for instance, keyboard pieces, like the pieces for a musical clock by Handel, which are also included here.

Undoubtedly this is a most interesting production, first of all because of the 'Amen, Alleluja' settings by Handel. In addition, the three hymns shed light on a part of the English sacred repertoire from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which has remained largely under the radar, but which deserves much more attention. That makes it all the more regrettable that the performances are largely unsatisfying. I have heard Robert Crowe before, and to be honest I don't quite understand, why he should make recordings as a male soprano. Over the years I have heard several male singers in the soprano range, and most of them did not convince me that this is a viable alternative to female sopranos. Jörg Waschinsky came most close to it, and recently I enjoyed the singing of the German Philipp Mathmann. I would love to hear him in this repertoire. Crowe's voice just lacks stability; often I noted seemingly uncontrolled sudden fortes, creating extreme dynamic contrasts without any reason. I also dislike his frequent and wide vibrato. I found it hard to listen to this disc from beginning to end. Male sopranos pretend to imitate the castratos of Handel's time. Therefore it is rather odd that in the cadenza in Croft's hymn Crowe moves from the top to the bottom of his range, the latter firmly in the chest register, something castratos obviously did not have.

I sincerely hope that these interesting pieces by Handel will get another chance to be performed in a technically and stylistically convincing manner.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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