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This is an attractive and thoughtfully assembled program. It’s been many years since I last heard the nine German arias (performed in Boston by Jan DeGaetani, if memory serves), but I dimly recall finding them stately and just a bit dull. Renewed acquaintance now corrects my faulty first impressions. The arias were composed in London between 1724 and 1727, when Handel was at the height of his career as an opera composer. The texts were supplied by his longtime friend Barthold Heinrich Brockes, who had already collaborated with Handel on a Passion setting in 1716. Herr Brockes’s verses comprise a curious fusion of classical pantheism and Christian spirituality, in which the contemplation of nature leads the singer to thoughts of God and the all-embracing goodness of divine providence. These are essentially lyrical rather than dramatic utterances, and there is nothing here that attains the emotional intensity of, say, Cleopatra’s “Piangeró la sorte mia” (from Giulio Cesare) or the exhilarating bravura of her “Da tempesto il legno infranto” from the same opera. The quality of the music is consistently high, however, and the emotional range, though narrower than the operas, is still considerable. “Das zitternde Glänzen” skips along genially, and the march-like “Meine Seele hört im Sehen” expresses the kind of sturdy affirmation you might expect to find in a Bach cantata. Especially haunting is the sublime “Süsse Stille, sanfte Quelle,” a slow, soulful, yet subtly sensuous, rumination cut from the same cloth as the famous Largo from Serse.
On this CD the arias are interspersed in groups of three among three chamber works for Baroque (transverse) flute and continuo, all of them laid out in a typical slow-fast-slow-fast pattern. The Trio sonata in E Minor and Concerto a Quattro in D Minor are delightful examples of Handel’s light, divertimento style, while the Trio Sonata in B Minor, with its gorgeous largo, offers something more substantial and personal.
All of the
works on this CD have been recorded a number of times in the past, and it
has to be said that the competition is strong. Canadian soprano Gillian
Keith sings gracefully with a light, supple, forward tone and good German
diction. Some may find her pronounced flutter-vibrato obtrusive, but it
never disturbs her pitch. Emma Kirkby on Erato offers greater tonal purity
and refinement of phrasing, but is less vivid with the words. I myself
prefer a fuller lyric sound in this music: a Pamina-voice rather than a
Papagena-voice. Arleen Auger recorded these arias in the 1970s with radiant
tone and that forthright confidence of hers, but didn’t entirely avoid a
touch of old-fashioned stateliness. All things considered, Keith holds her
own in a competitive field, and her light voice and fluent musicianship are
nicely matched with the bright-eyed playing of the Florilegium ensemble,
with its personable lead flutist, Ashley Solomon. So individually the
performances assembled here may be surpassed on other recordings, but taken
together they add up to a satisfying experience.
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