George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Nine German Arias, HWV 202-210 (1724-6) [48:36]
Gloria, HWV deest (1707) [17:16]
Dorothea Craxton (soprano) Fredrik From (violin) Kjeld Lybeccker Steffenson (cello) Leif Meyer (harpsichord, organ)
Hanna Ydmark (violin: Gloria), Lars Baunkilde (violone: Gloria)
rec. 27 April-1 May 2010, Blågårds Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark
Notes in English, texts and translation not included but can be downloaded from the Naxos site
NAXOS 8.572587 [65:52]
Of all German composers, Handel must be the one who spent least time in Germany and set the fewest German texts. A fair number of those he did set were by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whom he probably met in Halle while still a teenager and whose passion text he set in 1715/16. These nine expansive arias for soprano, violin and continuo also use texts by Brockes and were written between 1724 and 1726. They cover a considerable range of mood, from joyful to introspective, and exploit the combination of voice and violin - treated as equal partners - with much resource.
Though settings of German texts, the manner is Italianate, closer to Vivaldi than to Bach. This consideration, though, derives at least partly from the manner of the performances. Dorothea Craxton has a lovely, light soprano voice, completely at ease in her runs and ornaments, tastefully embellishing the “da capo” sections. The instrumental contributions concentrate on light textures and an avoidance of too much gravitas.
Time was when we thought Handel stood for nobility, loftiness of thought, an uplifting effect on the listener and all sorts of similarly dreadful things. I used to think of the first of these arias as the epitome of the Handelian style as I believed it to be. Here it goes like a pretty minuet, charming according to its own lights. Probably this is what people expect Handel to sound like these days. I don’t know if he didn’t seem a greater composer when we thought all those unspeakable things about him, but the delicate, rococo figure we know him to be today has its charm.
Historically Informed Practice raises its ugliest head in nos. 6 and 7, where the chugging staccato quavers of the continuo part are laid end-to-end with all the artistic beauty of railway sleepers on a hundred-mile stretch of dead straight track. In fairness, Craxton’s musicality can be appreciated even over this opposition. Criticism is silenced by no. 4, where an organ takes the place of the chattering harpsichord and time stands still. It’s ravishingly lovely. No. 8 also uses the organ to good effect, leaving one to wish it had been employed in more than just three of the arias - maybe even in all of them - and recorded with more presence. Criticism is disarmed if not silenced by no. 9, where the organ is combined, in the outer sections, by the cello playing pizzicato. I suspect this is as close to Handelian practice as would be the use of a Steinway piano, but its rococo, Watteau-like charm is enchanting to the ear. And of course, you can argue that the use of a pizzicato cello with an organ continuo was at least theoretically available in Handel’s time, as the Steinway piano was not.
The Gloria was probably written in Italy in 1707. The cover blurb describes it as having been “rediscovered” in 2001. Actually, as Keith Anderson explains in his notes - on which I have drawn in several parts of this review - it had always been known, but had been supposed inauthentic. Now that scholars have apparently decided it’s real Handel, it’s had a lot of publicity and a good many performances. Funny, when it was the same piece of music all along. Not the first time, and assuredly not the last, that a piece of music has been hailed as a wonderful discovery when it has an approved-composer labelling, yet was deemed so much waste-paper when it was of doubtful attribution or even anonymous. Since it’s a fine piece one hopes it won’t sink from view again if questions are raised once more about its authorship.
It doesn’t sound all that Handelian to my ears. If Handel adopted an Italianate style in the German arias, here, on Italian soil and with Latin words, he - or whoever - seems much more German, especially if you mentally run the setting alongside the familiar one by Vivaldi. “Dominus Deus”, for example, has a Bachian profundity.
I suspect that the old-fashioned noble-lofty style of Handel interpretation wouldn’t work here. Apart from a few jabbing staccato chords I didn’t much care for, the music seems a perfect fit for these performers’ concept of baroque style.
I daresay my mumblings will be meaningless to most up-and-with-it listeners today. Or are there isolated pockets of resistance that wish the HIPsters had conserved the best of the old style while freeing us from the worst? Not to speak of introducing a few undesirable practices themselves. In the present case HIP is at its best more often than at its worst and you will in any case have Dorothea Craxton’s singing to enjoy. She’s obviously one to watch.
I have stated in my header that the sung texts and translations are not included and this is literally true. However, the texts are short and Keith Anderson’s piece-by-piece discussion actually tells you most of what you need to know. You can also download the score from the IMSLP-Petrucci Library, though for copyright reasons they have to offer an older edition without the benefit of modern scholarship.
Christopher Howell
Historically Informed Practice at its most ravishingly lovely, and occasionally at its ugliest. Dorothea Craxton is obviously one to watch.