The German Arias are amongst the least frequently
performed and recorded works by Handel. I have been attending
early music concerts for over thirty years now, and I can't
remember having ever heard one aria from this set. Even so there
are several recordings in the catalogue - if I'm not mistaken
this is the fifth complete recording - but they are not often
played on radio programmes. For some reason they seem to hold
little appeal to the public at large. They are, however, quite
interesting in that they shed light on an aspect of Handel's
career which has been overshadowed by his years in Italy and
England. They show that he never lost contact with his roots;
with Germany. They were not composed, as one may expect, before
he travelled to Italy, but in the 1720s, when he was already
an established composer in England.
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'.
This was set to music by a number of German composers, like
Telemann, Mattheson, Stölzel, Keiser and Fasch. Bach used parts
of it in his St John Passion. Among the composers setting this
text to music was 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 the 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 counted 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 da capo form, with the exception of 'In den angenehmen Büschen',
which has two sections but no repeats. In all arias the soprano
is supported by basso continuo, and one instrument. Here a violin
is used, and although Handel didn't specify the instrument he
had in mind, David Vickers, in his programme notes, argues that
the transverse flute would not be able to play the bottom C
in 'Süße Stille'. This is based upon the idea that in all arias
the obbligato instrument should be the same. That seems plausible,
but by no means absolutely necessary.
The performance is pretty good: Carolyn Sampson
sings well and she seems to have a healthy understanding of
the texts. Her German pronunciation is rather good as well.
But in comparison Emma Kirkby and London Baroque are much more
convincing. 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 at all bad.
In addition The King's Consort performs the three
sonatas for oboe and b.c. which are of established authenticity.
David Vickers correctly 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 composed so little for
the oboe as solo instrument, although his vocal and orchestral
works contain many wonderful obbligato parts for it. The three
sonatas on this disc are certainly splendid, 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.
sum up: this is a good recording, but in my opinion the recording
by Emma Kirkby and London Baroque is still top of the bill and
the favourite interpretation of these little gems.
Johan van Veen