Tuesday 15 December 2020

Richness of invention in the contemplation of God in the beauties of nature: Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo in Handel's German Arias

Handel: Nine German Arias - Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo (Matthew Truscott, Jonathan Cohen, Jonathan Manson, Thomas Dunford - Wigmore Hall (image taken from live-stream)
Handel: Nine German Arias - Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo (Matthew Truscott, Jonathan Cohen, Jonathan Manson, Thomas Dunford - Wigmore Hall (image taken from live-stream)

Handel Nine German Arias, Geminiani, Marais; Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Food for the soul, Handel's contemplative vocal chamber music in wonderfully engaged performances

On the day that it was announced that London would be going into Tier 3 and that entertainment venues would be closing to live audiences, we managed to slip in one last live concert, Handel's contemplative settings of poetry expounding the joy and beauty of God's creation, thoughts that we rather need at the moment.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and members of Arcangelo (Jonathan Cohen, organ/harpsichord, Matthew Truscott, violin, Jonathan Manson, cello, Thomas Dunford, lute) performed Handel's Nine German Arias alongside Francesco Geminiani's Cello Sonata in F Op.5 No.5, Handel's Violin Sonata in A Op.1 No.1 and Marin Marais' Les voix humaine at the Wigmore Hall on 14 December 2020.

Considering the polyglot nature of his talent and the profusion of his works, Handel did not set very much of his native language. There are only two mature works in German and both of these have links to Hamburg and to the poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680–1747), who was a Hamburg town councillor, Handel's Brockes Passion and the Nine German Arias. The passion seems to have been written in around 1716 and performed, alongside settings of the same text by Keiser, Telemann and Matheson (Handel had worked for the first as  a young man in Hamburg and was friends with the latter two) in Hamburg in 1719. Handel may have written the passion as a feeler towards a career in German if the political situation deteriorated (the Jacobite Rebellion had been in 1715, it many not have been completely obvious to those on the ground that the Hanover Dynasty would survive in England and Handel's fortunes were bound up with them). 

In 1721, Brockes’s collection of poems Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, bestehend in Physicalisch- und Moralischen Gedichten was published in Hamburg, it was arranged in a way to encourage musical settings and was so popular that the 1724 edition nearly doubled the number of pages. It seems to be from the second edition that Handel chose nine arias to set for voice, obbligato instrument and continuo. Handel's links to Brockes are fascinating, Brockes was at Halle University the same time as Handel (five years his junior) was registered there, and Brockes held weekly concerts in his apartment. The two must have interacted whilst Handel was working at the opera theatre in Hamburg, and in 1727 when Brockes published his second volume of Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, he directly referred to Handel's settings of his poetry. And in a later publication, Brockes refers to family boating trips in which he and his children would perform some of these arias, which implies that Brockes possessed a manuscript copy of the settings.

We don't know why Handel set them, perhaps there was another project in Hamburg. From 1721 his connections there included his friend Telemann, and we know that around this time Telemann set Brockes' poetry. The music was not published, so we do not have a dedication (often the source of much information in 18th century music) and Handel's manuscript (which survives in the British Library) does not specify the obbligato instrument (but the range is such that a flute could not be used for all the arias). They were probably not conceived as a single cycle, and Handel would be perhaps surprised to find us performing all nine together.

At the Wigmore Hall, Matthew Truscott played the obbligato line (except in 'Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken' when it was played by Jonathan Manson) with continuo from Manson (cello), Dunford (lute) and Cohen (moving between organ and harpsichord). We heard the arias in four groups, three pairs and a trio at the end, interspersed with solo moments for the instrumentalists, Geminiani's Cello Sonata, Handel's Violin Sonata and a lute transcription of a Marin Marais solo.

Handel sets Brockes' texts as vocal chamber music, and for much of the time violin and voice duetted and complemented each other. But these performances were anything but a one-man or two-man show, each of the continuo players contributed strongly to the mix, making the arias often feel like a group dialogue with each instrument contributing little comments. Jonathan Manson's vibrant bass lines anchored everything and was often as much a character in the dialogues. Having both harpsichord (or organ) and lute in the continuo mix might seem a luxury, but it meant that both Cohen and Dunford were free to do far more than fill in the necessary harmonic figurations. That each performer sparked of the other meant that this was profoundly engaged playing.     

Brockes' poems are mainly contemplative, musing on God's goodness in nature. Handel responds with music which is often finely mellifluous. All but one of the arias is in da capo form, but Handel was clearly responding to the words and his settings are anything but perfunctory. Iestyn Davies brought his customary beauty of tone and care for phrasing to the music, so much so that it almost set him apart with the instrumental parts, full of engaged detail, surrounding Davies' more thoughtful vocal line, digging deep into the idea of God being present in the beauty of creation reflected in the beauty of Davies performance, so that in 'Singe, Seele, Gott zum Preise' Davies' focused delivery was surrounded by striking rhythmic figurations in the instruments.

We started off in a sober manner, somewhat comforting but still rather serious, with 'Künft'ger Zeiten eitler Kummer'. But, for all the works' pietist leanings and tendency towards German contemplative enquiry, there were showy moments too, Handel the Italian opera composer also peeped out. There were quasi operatic showy elements to 'Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen' and 'Die ihr aus dunkeln Grüften' could almost have come from an opera and felt very much like a simile aria with hints of Cesare's Act One aria (with obbligato horn) 'Va tacito e nascosto' from Giulio Cesare (premiered in 1724!). And in other arias, there were moments of sheer delight in the orchestral richness and proliferation of Handel's invention. 

Faced with such engaged performances, with a singer crafting the vocal lines with beauty of tone and care for both phrasing and rhetoric, it seems petty to complain, yet I felt soemtimes that Davies was focused a little too much on line and tone. These are settings of important sacred poetry, and I wanted rather more bite in his words. For all the richness of Handel's invention, we should come away with the feeling that the poetry is as important as the words.

The instrumental movements gave nice moments of repose as well as providing contrasts of texture and style. Francesco Geminiani was an Italian contemporary of Handel who spent a lot of time in London, as a teacher and a violin virtuoso (and as such performed with Handel). His six cello sonatas (first published in 1746 during a sojourn in Paris) are now recognised as some of the finest to come from the 18th century. Geminiani's writing for cello is idiomatic and demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the instrument's technical and expressive abilities. The Cello Sonata in F was in four movements, first a free rhapsodic prelude which led to a lively 'Allegro' with copious passage-work for the cello enlivened by moments of dialogue with the continuo. The following 'Adagio' allowed Manson's cello to really sing, and the final 'Allegro' was perky with a country dance-ish feel, though Geminiani certainly kept his soloist busy, and throughout we had a sense of the somewhat wayward nature of Geminiani's music.

Handel's Opus 1 was published in the 1730s by John Walsh, a collection of 12 sonatas for various solo instruments; the printed copies provide just the solo line and figured bass line. At the time Handel was almost exclusively focused on the Italian opera, and had yet to discover the benefits of publication, and it would be some years before Walsh's pirate publications led to Handel taking a direct involvement in printed publications. The sonatas were probably written for the instrumentalists of Handel's opera orchestra. The Violin Sonata in A was probably written in 1725 or 1726, and is in four movements. The opening 'Andante' was a substantial movement, no mere prelude, a stately yet graceful piece which led to a toe-tapping 'Allegro' full of moments for violinist Matthew Truscott to show off. The short 'Adagio' was graceful, and led to an engaging yet elegant dance for the final. The sonata was full of Handel's melodic invention and a real crowd pleaser, you could imagine it going well in the interval of the opera (Vivaldi did similar things with concertos during the intervals of his operas in Venice).

The final solo took us back a generation to Marin Marais. His solo, Les voix humaines was originally a viola da gamba solo inspired by the Vox Humana organ stop, itself inspired by the human voice. We heard it in a transcription for lute played by Thomas Dunford. It created a fine moment of stillness and calm, with Dunford's performance combining elaborate figurations with quietly concentrated playing.

The recital is available for download from the Wigmore Hall website.

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