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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Arias

[I] "Your Tuneful Voice - Handel Oratorio Arias"
Iestyn Davies, alto; Carolyn Sampson, sopranoa
The King's Consort
Dir: Robert King
rec: Sept 6 - 8, 2013, Guildford (Surrey), The Menuhin Hall
Vivat - 105 (© 2014) (67'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Alexander Balus (HWV 65) (Mighty love now calls to arm); Belshazzar (HWV 61) (O sacred oracles of truth); Esther (HWV 50) (Tune your harps to cheerful strains; Who calls my parting soul from death, dueta; How can I stay when love invites); Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) (Thou shalt bring them in); Jephtha (HWV 70) (overture; Up the dreadful steep ascending); Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74) (Eternal source of light divine); Samson (HWV 57) (overture); Semele (HWV 58) (Your tuneful voice my tale would tell); Solomon (HWV 67) (Welcome as the dawn of day, duet)a; The Choice of Hercules (HWV 69) (Your tuneful voice my tale would tell); The Triumph of Time and Truth (HWV 71) (Mortals think that Time is sleeping; On the valleys, dark and cheerless)

[II] "Nine German Arias, Gloria"
Dorothea Craxton, soprano; Fredrik From, Hanna Ydmarkb, violin; Kjeld Lybecker Steffensen, cello; Lars Baunkilde, violonec; Leif Meyer, harpsichord, organ
rec: April 27 - May 1, 2010, Copenhagen, Blågårds Kirke
Naxos - 8.572587 (© 2011) (65'52")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list
Score German Arias;
Score Gloria

Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen (HWV 203); Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften (HWV 208); Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden (HWV 210); Gloria in excelsis Deo (HWV deest)bc; 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)

The career of George Frideric Handel during his London years could be divided into two phases: the first was devoted to the composition of Italian operas, the second to English oratorio. However, things are a little more complicated. Handel wrote his first oratorios when he stayed in Italy, and later revised one of them for performances on an English text. In the 1730s he still wrote operas on a regular basis, but at that time he also produced some of his great oratorios, such as Esther, Athalia and Deborah. It was only in the 1740s that he completely turned to oratorio.

Musically speaking there was no watershed between the two genres. Stylistically they had much in common, which is in line with developments on the continent, especially in Italy since the late 17th century. There was also some continuity in the way they were performed. Although his oratorios were not staged, they were usually performed in the theatre. Handel also made use of singers who were mainly active in the theatre. Sometimes roles in his oratorios were sung by Italian opera singers, and one may wonder how they dealt with the English texts. It is hardly conceivable that they were able to pronounce them without a foreign accent.

The first disc reviewed here focuses on arias for alto from several oratorios. In today's performance practice these are either sung by a female or a male alto. One may prefer the one or the other option, but that can hardly be based on historical arguments. In his liner-notes Donald Burrows points out how different the singers were which performed Handel's alto parts. Sometimes he even rewrote arias for a singer with a different range. Because of that it is not possible to pin-point a specific type of voice for a paricular aria or part.

Iestyn Davies has made a clever choice from the large repertoire. He has avoided some evergreens, such as arias from Messiah, and included arias from compositions which are probably not that well-known, except to seasoned Handelians. That goes for The Choice of Hercules - not to be confused with Hercules -, Semele and certainly Alexander Balus. Because of that this disc can also serve as a nice introduction to these works which deserve more attention. Davies' voice is not very big and seems most suitable to more lyrical and introverted arias. Therefore it was a good thing that he largely avoided more heroic arias. The aria which comes close to that category is 'Mighty love now calls to arm' from Alexander Balus, with parts for trumpets in the score. It is the least-convincing part of this disc: beautifully sung, but too restrained, and the balance between Davies' voice and the orchestra is less than ideal. Arias such as 'Thou shalt bring them in' from Israel in Egypt and 'On the valleys, dark and cheerless' from The Triumph of Time and Truth come off much better. Davies' ornamentation is impeccable, without any exaggeration.

Handel's duets are among his finest pieces, and we hear two splendid examples from Solomon and Esther respectively. Carolyn Sampson keeps her vibrato more in check than in most of her solo recordings, but even so I find the cooperation between the two singers rather unsatisfying. I would have liked another soprano instead. The programme is extended by two nicely-played overtures.

It has to be pointed out that some of the selected arias are from works which are not ranked among the oratorios in the Handel catalogue. That goes, apart from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, for The Choice of Hercules and for Semele. It is ironic that the title of this disc is from one of them.

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. It is not the only work on texts by Barthold Heinrich Brockes which Handel set to music. The Nine German Arias date from the mid-1720s, and are based on poems which Brockes had first published in 1721, under the title Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, and were reprinted in an extended edition in 1724. 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.

Apparently Brockes wrote these poems with the explicit purpose of them being set to music, as he divided them into recitatives, arias and duets. Handel only uses single arias from these 'cantatas', and set them in the form of dacapo arias. Only In den angenehmen Büschen omits a full dacapo; after the second part only the opening ritornello is repeated. It is not quite clear why Handel has written these arias. It has been suggested they were a kind of answer to the collection of sacred cantatas which Georg Philipp Telemann - a close friend of Handel - had published in 1725/26. That is not impossible: Handel may have known Telemann's cantatas before they were printed. There is a similarity in scoring: solo voice, one melody instrument and basso continuo. However, there are also clear differences as Telemann's cantatas are connected to the Sundays and feast-days of the ecclesiastical year and the content is not really comparable. Whatever the truth may be, Handel's cantatas are very fine works which are reasonably well represented on disc - only recently I reviewed two discs, and Emma Kirkby recorded them twice - but not often performed in public concerts which is hard to explain.

Dorothea Craxton has the advantage of being a native German speaker which guarantees an idiomatic pronunciation. This and her articulation and diction belong to the assets of her interpretation. Fortunately that is not all; in fact there is hardly anything to criticise, except probably the tempo of some arias which I found a little too slow. Her singing is very enjoyable and she does exactly the right things in order to achieve a maximum expression. Her ornamentation is stylish and not overdone; the only questionable aspect is the rather wide-ranging cadenza in the dacapo of Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken. The part of the melody instrument is not specified, but Handel probably had the violin in mind. That is used here in all the arias, and Fredrik From plays these parts beautifully. The support from the basso continuo is to the point and gives much attention to the rhythmic pulse.

With the Gloria we return to the Italian style. It was known as an anonymous composition, but was exposed as a Handel work in 2000. It has been recorded several times by more renowned sopranos than Dorothea Craxton. However, she measures up to the competion; she deals pretty well with the coloratura, especially in the 'Amen', and has no problems with the sometimes big leaps. There is no lack of expression either.

All in all, this is a very nice disc and a welcome addition to the Handel discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Dorothea Craxton
Iestyn Davies
The King's Consort

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