Tuesday 4 October 2022

Sweet Stillness: Handel's Nine German Arias receive some creative rethinking in these wonderfully engaging performances

Sweet Stillness: George Frideric Handel - Nine German Arias, Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a, Sonata in F minor, HWV 370; Mary Bevan, Davina Clarke, Tom Foster, Alexander Rolton, Sergio Bucheli; Voces8 Records
Sweet Stillness: George Frideric Handel - Nine German Arias, Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a, Sonata in F minor, HWV 370; Mary Bevan, Davina Clarke, Tom Foster, Alexander Rolton, Sergio Bucheli; Voces8 Records
Reviewed 4 October 2022 (★★★★★)

Highly satisfying musical performances bring out the chamber interactions of these works, whilst never neglecting Brockes' texts and all benefiting from some creative rethinking about the works presentation

Handel didn't set all that much German. He'd avoided the traditional kapellmeister training by going off to Hamburg to play at the opera, and then heading to Italy, home of opera. So, he largely worked in Italian, plus writing church music in Latin, at first and later in English. His major German language work is the Brockes Passion, which may have been written at a time when Handel was considering his career in England and having a German language work would have been useful for possible employment in Germany. The Brockes Passion was probably written around 1716 (i.e. the year after the Jacobite Rising) and was performed in Hamburg in 1719.

A smaller, related work is the Nine German Arias which also sets texts by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, the author of the passion. In fact, Handel and Brockes probably met as students in Halle. By the 1720s (some years after the passion was written), Handel had a copy of the first volume of Brockes collection of his poetic works, Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott (published in 1724) and Handel used this as a source of the texts for Nine German Arias. That Brockes heard these settings we know, because in the introduction to the second volume of his poetry, published in 1727, he mentions the arias. What we don't know is why Handel was writing them!

On this new disc from Voces8 Records, Sweet Stillness, soprano Mary Bevan performs the Nine German Arias with Davina Clarke (violin), Tom Foster (harpsichord/organ), Alexander Rolton (cello) and Sergio Bucheli (theorbo), along with two of Handel's violin sonatas, the Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a and the Sonata in F major, HWV 370.

In the 1720s, Handel hardly had a use for a chamber cantata in German. His singers were largely Italians or English, and his audience expected music in Italian or English. In his booklet note, Leo Duarte suggests the possibility that Brockes might even have suggested the settings to Handel, and indeed after hearing Handel's settings of his texts Brockes created a new Spring Cantata where eight of the nine texts set by Handel were incorporated into a larger structure of three linked cantatas. Whether this was ever set as a whole, we don't know. But the performers use Brockes' text to create an order for the arias. The traditional order is based on that in the surviving manuscript, and this is problematic in terms of key relationships with arias in the same key following each other. By using Brockes' order from the Spring Cantata the key relationships are made more satisfactory, and the interpolation of the two violin sonatas helps to divide the arias into cantata groups.

The violin sonatas have a similar sort of complex history as the arias; we know them mainly from a pirate publication by John Walsh, and there are suggestions that some of the sonatas published by Walsh are not by Handel. Here, we are less worried by that and more inclined to be satisfied by their musical merit and the remarkably satisfying programme that the performers have created.

Handel: Nine German Arias - recording session at Voces8 Centre with Davina Clarke, Mary Bevan, Tom Foster, Alexander Rolton, Sergio Bucheli (Photo Voces8
Handel: Nine German Arias - recording session at Voces8 Centre with Davina Clarke, Mary Bevan, Tom Foster, Alexander Rolton, Sergio Bucheli (Photo Voces8)

It is worth bearing in mind that this is chamber music, despite the language difference there is a lot in common with the Italian chamber cantatas and duets. Virtuosity is, to a certain extent, taken for granted and other factors come into play, bringing out the way the music expresses the text and the interaction between voice and the other instruments. In a way, these are not unlike trio sonatas with two melody instruments (voice and violin) alongside a continuo group. 

The arias are recorded in three groups of three, separated by the two sonatas. First come Die ihr aus dunklen Grüften, Das zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen, and Meine Seele hört im Sehen, the first rather vivacious with a throbbing accompaniment, the second is a perky delight and the third poised, yet vivid with a lovely bounce to the accompaniment. Whilst the words are serious, they are also highly expressive and I love the way the performers do not restrict themselves to sober, sombre colours. There is certainly nothing stolid about this and I love the chamber music feel, the way Bevan and Clarke play off each other creating a lovely interplay. 

Next comes the Sonata in G minor, which dates from around the time Handel was probably writing the arias. Published in 1730/31 by Walsh as a sonata for oboe, Handel's surviving manuscript suggests the violin, though he did make alterations to allow it to be performed on the oboe and there is even the suggestion of a viola da gamba version. In four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast, Clarke begins with engaging poise; she and the continuo group create some lovely textures. By turns the following movements are vivacious, poised and perky, creating a short yet expressively engaging work.

For the second group of arias we have Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken, Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden, and Singe Seele, Gott zum Preise, The first features a beautifully poised performance from both Bevan and Clarke, whilst the lyrical second aria flows elegantly yet with a strong sense of impulse as well, this is music that moves in both senses of the word. And the third aria brings this group to a delightfully perky conclusion.

The second instrumental interlude, Sonata in F major, comes from Walsh's revision to his 1730/31 publication, though a contemporary annotation suggests the sonata is not by Handel. No matter, it is a very fine work indeed. Again in four movements, the first is elegantly expressive, the second rather vivacious, the third has the violin line down two just a thread and accompanied only by the cello, quite fabulous. And we end with a lively dance.

The final group of arias is Kunft;ger Zeiten eitler Kummer, In den angenehmen Büschen and Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle, the first profoundly beautiful and highly concentrated, creating something rather touching, the second is vigorous, with wonderfully engaged performances from all, and the final aria, which gives the disc its name, is all quiet intensity with both Bevan and Clarke giving us great beauty of line, allied still to fine words from Bevan.

This is a beautiful and satisfying disc. Not only do Bevan and Clarke have a lovely relationship (the two are old friends as well as colleagues), but the whole group has a fine ensemble feel. The continuo is never simply in the background, but an actively engaged part of the whole. And the texts which are the arias prime reason? Well, they come over well, and Jonathan Rees has provided fine new English prose translations of Brockes' rather flowery German texts.

The result is an expressively engaged disc that provides satisfying performances as well as a musical structure that reaps the rewards of some beautifully creative thinking.

Sweet Stillness
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Nine German Arias, Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a, Sonata in F minor, HWV 370
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Davina Clarke (violin)
Tom Foster (organ/harpsichord)
Alexander Rolton (cello)
Sergio Bucheli (Theorbo)
Recorded at Voces8 Centre

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