George Frideric Handel is one of the most frequently-performed composers in modern times. Even so, some parts of his output are not that well known. That is certainly the case with the nine German arias which are the subject of this disc. They are available in several recordings, but get hardly a look-in at public concerts. The two trio sonatas from the op. 2 included here are far better-known.
The German arias are not from Handel's years in Germany, before his departure to Italy. They were written in the mid-1720s, when Handel was already an established force in English musical life and the main composer of operas and occasional works. He never lost contact with his native country, and he stood in regular contact with his friend Telemann. Maybe it was through him that he became acquainted with the writings of Barthold Heinrich Brockes. This poet was not only the author of a Passion libretto, known as the Brockes Passion
, and set by various composers, including Telemann and Handel himself. He also published a collection of poems under the title Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott
in which the exposition of God's greatness in nature is the main theme. Brockes had divided the poems into recitatives, arias and duets which indicates that he wanted them to be set to music. Handel selected nine poems from this collection and scored them for soprano, one melody instrument and bc. In his liner-notes Jean-Philippe Navarre suggests a connection between Handel composing the German arias and Telemann publishing his collection Harmonischer Gottesdienst
in 1725/26. It is indeed notable that the scoring is exactly the same. However, there is little similarity in content. Telemann's cantatas are connected to the Sundays and feastdays of the ecclesiastical year and largely based on biblical texts.
Handel has only set single stanzas as independent arias; there are no duets or recitatives. All the arias are written in da capo
form, with the exception of In den angenehmen Büschen
, which has two sections but no repeats. Handel didn't specify the treble instrument to be used, but there seems general agreement that he had the violin in mind. In Süße Stille
the lowest note is unplayable at the transverse flute, for instance. However, there is no firm indication that the same instrument has to be played in every aria. In recordings by Monika Mauch and L'arpa festante (Carus, 2008) and Carolyn Sampson and the King's Consort (Hyperion, 2007) respectively, the flute and the oboe are used in alternation with the violin.
I was not overly enthusiastic about the recordings just mentioned, but they are to be preferred over what is on offer here. The German pronunciation of Capucine Meens is not perfect, but that is not the main problem. It’s rather the lack of expression: there are quite a few differences in content between these arias, but listening to these performances you will hardly notice that. Ms Meens pays too little attention to the text, her articulation is not very good as she sings mostly legato and dynamically her performance is also pretty flat. The latter also goes for the performance of the violin part. I found it hard to concentrate because very little happens here to catch the attention. Handel's arias may be in German, and they are certainly not comparable with arias in his operas, but they are written in the Italian style and that doesn’t quite work here.
The two trio sonatas fare little better. They seem to date from somewhere between 1715 and 1720, but some may have been derived from pieces Handel composed before his Italian period. Even so, they contain clear dramatic elements, but these are completely overlooked. Like the German arias they are performed smoothly and nicely, but that is not enough in Handel. He was a theatrical composer by nature, and that should guide every performance.
Everything on this disc is available in better performances. I can't see much of a market for this.
Johan van Veen