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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Nine German Arias, HWV 202-210 (1724-6) [51:41]
Penelope Appleyard (soprano)
Florisma (Penelope Spencer (violin); Gail Hennessy (oboe); Michelle Holloway (recorder); William Drakett harpsichord & organ); Aileen Henry (triple harp); Hetti Price (cello & viola da gamba))
rec. 2015, St Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham, UK
Full text in German with translations in English CONVIVIUM RECORDS CR043 [51:41]
Handel’s Nine German Arias constitute a relatively little-known part of his prodigious output, but have been recorded several times, despite rarely featuring in concerts. They are intriguing, and virtually unique, amongst his work not only as vocal compositions without any wider dramatic context, but also in that they set words in the composer’s native tongue.
Those texts are by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whose famous Passion narrative Handel had set around ten years earlier. The poems reflect upon the presence and power of God in the world in an almost pantheistic manner, and elicited from Handel some music of great charm and inventiveness, even if not as virtuosic or arresting as that usually encountered in the arias of his Italian operas of around the same period, as these settings eschew coloratura and melismatic decoration. Penelope Appleyard also notably keeps ornamentation in the repeated, da capo sections of each aria to a minimum.
These arias do not call for vivid or flamboyant characterisation, therefore, but they do need more varied and distinguishing phrasing than Appleyard and the musicians of Florisma tend to allow here. Having set the pace for a given aria at the beginning, they follow through to its end relentlessly, without marking the onset of new phrases and sections with much contrast or letting up. Instead variety arises from the different timbres Appleyard creates from one aria to another, such as her radiant purity of tone for ‘In den angenehmen Büschen’; a seamless fluency for ‘Die ihr aus dunkeln Grüften’; and a more robust joyfulness for ‘Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen’ which, exceptionally, prompts some more florid and agile ornamentation from Appleyard in its da capo than in the other arias.
At the slow speed chosen for ‘Süsse Stille, sanfte Quelle’, however, the tension she tries to maintain in the vocal line borders on a whine. In other pieces the music’s higher register usually suits her – notwithstanding a few weakly sustained notes – as her lower register, in mezzo-soprano range, issues in a somewhat grainy, mushy tone. That said, she achieves a mellow sobriety for the dignified setting of ‘Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer’ which bears a similar nobility of character in its slow triple-time profile as ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ for Messiah.
As Handel did not specify the instruments to be used for the accompaniment, this recording varies the scoring in both the obbligato and continuo parts. Penelope Spencer plays the biggest role in performing in six of the arias on the violin – as they usually are heard in other recordings. She is generally alert, though there are moments during ‘In den angenehmen Büschen’, for example, where trills or certain other turns in the melody seem to take her by surprise, and the florid melody for ‘Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden’ sounds lacklustre for such a sprightly setting in the bright key of A major. But the richer, viola-like sound she contrives for ‘Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer’ is compelling. The choice of oboe for ‘Meine Seele hört im Sehen’ is apt as Gail Hennessy follows the cue of the dotted rhythm in the opening ritornello and treats most of the subsequent chains of semiquavers in a similar manner, although not notated as such, and so creates an easeful sense of levity that brings to life the rejoicing and laughter referred to in the text. The reposeful sonority of the recorder is appropriate for the atmosphere of “sweet quietude” conjured by ‘Süsse Stille, sanfte Quelle’, as is the gentle strumming of the triple harp by Aileen Henry for the continuo. Elsewhere the continuo is taken sympathetically by William Drakett variously on the harpsichord and organ.
This recording shuffles the order of the arias around from that given in printed sources, making for a generally satisfactory sequence of movements in the arrangement adopted, although in not interpolating any other compositions the disc’s 52-minute duration is quite short. Probably no recording of this cycle of arias displaces Emma Kirkby’s now classic account for their freshness and innocence which are entirely in tune with the temper of their text and music, despite sticking with the violin as the obbligato instrument. The older recording by Arleen Auger offers a richer texture which is alluring and luxurious in comparison, as well as also varying the obbligato instruments, though some will find its aesthetic now somewhat old-fashioned, whilst Carolyn Sampson’s account on Hyperion provides, to my mind, a somewhat more dramatic reading in response to the nuances of the word-setting. Appleyard and Dorothea Craxton vie for attention with their lighter, lyrical renditions, but Kirkby retains the laurels in that respect over her competitors for the more beguiling charm with which she raises her voice to heaven in praise of the Creator in these rare Handelian gems.