Friday 20 January 2023

Handel the European: two concerts showcasing the diversity & imagination of Handel's cantatas

Portrait miniature of Handel (c1710) by Christoph Platzer (Photo of a lost original, Handel-Haus, Halle)
Portrait miniature of Handel (c1710) by Christoph Platzer
(Photo of a lost original, Handel-Haus, Halle)
Handel: Sans y penser (Cantate Francaise) HWV 155, No se emendera jamas HWV 140, German Arias 202-208; Claire Ward, Maxim Del Mar, Miriam Nohl, Kiristiina Watt; City Music Foundation at the Great Hall, St Bartholomew's Hospital, 18 January 2023
Handel: Alpestre monte HWV81Un'alma innamorata HWV173Tra le fiamme HWV170; Carolyn Sampson, Finnish Baroque Orchestra; Wigmore Hall

Two concerts showcasing the more intimate beauties of Handel's cantatas, with texts setting Italian, French, Spanish and German. A lovely focus on an often ignored part of his imaginative output

Two concerts this week, showcased the range of Handel's writing for voice on an intimate scale. He wrote hundreds of small-scale cantatas, of which only a handful are well known, and though works in this style date largely from his Italian years, there are tantalising later chamber vocal works.

So, at the Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital on Wednesday 18 January 2023, the City Music Foundation presented soprano Claire Ward with Maxim Del Mar (violin), Miriam Nohl (cello), Kristiina Watt (archlute & Baroque guitar) in a programme called Handel's Europe which included movements from Handel's French language cantata Sans y penser HWV 155, plus the cantata in Spanish, No se emendera jamas HWV 140 and a selection of six of the German Arias. Then on 19 January 2023, soprano Carolyn Sampson joined members of the Finnish Baroque Orchestra for a programme of Handel's Italian cantatas, Alpestre monte HWV81, Un'alma innamorata HWV173 and Tra le fiamme HWV170.

This was music written for an almost forgotten social ritual, the salon. It wasn't concert music at all, and it is significant that as Ellen T. Harris has pointed out (in her wonderful book on the cantatas Handel as Orpheus), once Handel stopped having patron and started working for himself, then his cantatas stop almost entirely. For their concert at St Bartholomew's, Claire Ward and friends performed with the audience in a semi-circle round them, creating a real intimate feel. There was no harpsichord, here the continuo was cello (Miriam Nohl) and baroque guitar or archlute (Kristiina Watt). 

The first half of the programme showcased Handel's stylistic and verbal talents, with movements from the French cantata alongside the Spanish cantata and ending with a German aria. We don't know why Handel set texts in French or Spanish; both cantatas were written for Roman patrons and we can only assume that politics dictated the use of a foreign text. Ward, Nohl and Watt brought out a real sense of the French style of the music from Sans y penser, this wasn't just an Italian cantata with French words. Whilst No se emendera jamas was beautifully engaging, moving between the perky and the touching, with Watt's Baroque guitar giving things a real character.

Ward has a lovely, bright, focused soprano voice and throughout she really engaged with both the music and her audience, with the words always to the fore. She and the instrumentalists performed the music as vocal chamber music, rather than voice and accompaniment, and the results were beguiling.

The German Arias remain almost as mysterious as the cantatas, we know when Handel wrote them (in the 1720s) but not why. He sets texts by Heinrich Brockes, whose passion Handel set in 1716. Brockes may have had a direct hand in the project, and the arias were conceived singly over a few years and some have musical relationships with Handel's operas. These are not cantatas, but the music explores the same world, made even more poignant for being Handel's final works setting his native tongue.

We heard six of them, always stylishly performed and wonderfully engaging. Ward and violinist Maxim Del Mar created a lovely duet feel to many of the works, by turns brightly engaging and tender, always rewarding to listen to and intelligently stylish. This was a lovely way to hear Handel's music, and we had some instrumental punctuations, Santiago Murcia's instrumental transcriptions after Corelli.

At the Wigmore Hall the next day, the focus continued on Handel's Italian years with a trio of his Italian cantatas. Here the scale was slightly larger, how could it not be in the space, with an ensemble that included Pauliina Fred and Hanna-Kaisa Haapamäki (flute/recorder), Anthony Marini and Dora Asterstad (violin), Jussi Seppänen (cello), Louna Hosia (viola da gamba), Marianna Henriksson (harpsichord) and Eero Palviainen (theorbo), though not everyone played in everything. In particular, Anthony Marini, the first violin, was a very demonstrative player, always interesting but never reticent and the music making had a broader, more vivid sense than the intimacy of the previous day.

We began with Alpestre monte, or at least the two arias that survive from it, performed with the Andante from Handel's Trio Sonata in C minor, HWV 386a as an introduction. A striking accompagnato led to an intense first aria where the vocal line was accompanied by sharp string chords, and the second more upbeat aria was lovely with the voice intertwining with the two violins. 

Love was nearly always the theme of these arias, the pleasures and pains, though even the most painful is depicted in music of profound loveliness. The music in Un'alma innamorata remains remarkably upbeat, even though describing the pains of love. The first aria showcased Marini's strong violin, he and Sampson giving us a poised duet. The middle aria was remarkably perky, with Sampson showing clear enjoyment, and we ended with an elegant dance. The final cantata, Tra le fiamme was the most familiar, and it was the largest scale, involving all the performers including the fine obbligato viola da gamba from Louna Hosia. The joyful and engagingly dance-like opening aria is such an ear worm that Handel brings it back at the end, with Sampson elegantly decorating the vocal line. Here the ensemble made a wonderfully full sound, though the intervening arias were more intimate, the second lightly busy and full of charm, the third featuring some vivid string playing. Throughout there was a lovely sense of a wonderfully civilised presentation of a moral tale; the cantata uses the example of Daedalus and Icarus as a moral for not getting burned in the flames of love.

In between these, we had instrumental music by Handel's Italian contemporary Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico. Alessandro Scarlatti's Sonata nona in A minor proved a fine showpiece for the transverse flute playing of Pauliina Fred, the orchestra's artistic planner,  and we also heard his equally fine Sonata in A with its two flute parts. Both of these made you realise quite how much striking material there is, and in both works it was the slow movements that real had an emotional pull. Domenico was represented by the Sonata in A Kk208 for harpsichord, a lovely moment of contrast.

Handel's cantatas are never going to be big box office, and they remain a challenge to programme, so it was lovely to see two very different performances, both bringing imagination and daring into creating the right environment to let the music speak.

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