Handel as an Axis of Baroque Music in Germany and England
In 2009, Britain is celebrating a convergence of jubilees honoring composers who helped define the sometimes elusive nature of English classical music. It is the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Handel’s death, while Henry Purcell will celebrate his three hundred fiftieth birthday. In addition, two non-English composers closely associated with that nation’s classical heritage are having parallel tributes: Joseph Haydn, in the two-hundredth year of his passing; and Felix Mendelssohn, born in that year, 1809.
While the political reach of Britain through dominion was ascendant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, her primacy in the arts was less assured or consistent than that of her continental neighbors. England’s achievement in letters would ultimately be seen as the great succession to the Classical Age; other cultural attainments tended towards more assimilation. For example, England never effectuated the hegemony over music that could match the wealth of musical innovation and genius of Italy, France, and, ultimately, Germany. Britain would wait two hundred fifty years for a musical rebirth; then, and only then, would the names of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Henry Purcell be held in synoptic esteem. Before this recent “English Musical Renaissance,” George Frideric Handel was the only English musician to be universally regarded as a genius and to bear influence on musical greats to come. Of course, Handel was really a German, born Georg Friedrich Händel; his work had taken root in Hamburg and Italy before he visited, and ultimately settled, in England. Yet, it is impossible to listen to much of Handel without hearing the unmistakable dignity characteristic of English sacred music. Assimilating national styles, in a chameleon-like way, was a hallmark of Handel’s genius. He was to draw from seventeenth-century English composers like Henry Purcell as much as he would from German masters such as Zachow and Mattheson. Thus, when Handel composed his eleven Chandos Anthems he extended an Anglican form, the “verse anthem,” with techniques he drew from German “sacred concerti,” creating the quintessential High English Baroque sound.
It is worth noting two distinguishing hallmarks of Baroque music that link earlier masters like Purcell with later ones like Handel and Bach. The first trait is the basso continuo, or thorough bass – a bass line that is played with an accompanying instrument (or several) which filled in the intended harmonies. The second characteristic has been called the “concerted style”: rather than the continuous flow of counterpoint of the earlier epoch, instrumental and vocal groups were now played or sung in contrasting and alternating ways. Alternation and contrast in color, texture, tempo and mood gave the Baroque its expressive leverage. This latter textural aspect would allow church music to be ultimately wed with multi-movement secular music, as was the case with oratorios and cantatas. Listening to Purcell’s “verse” anthem, “Rejoice in the Lord Alway,” we hear the early influence of this concertato style in its contrasting of solo voices and its use of a small instrumental group with choir. The Handel Chandos Anthems, written much later, are very nearly miniature oratorios; they are to Messiah what Bach’s cantatas were to his St. Matthew Passion.
We know that after Handel settled in England he became familiar with Purcell’s music and Purcell’s teacher, John Blow. Another composer whom Handel knew personally while in Germany was his contemporary, Georg Phillip Telemann. The two were life-long friends, and Telemann performed several of Handel’s operas when he was director of the Hamburg opera from 1721 until 1738. When one hears Handel’s voice in Telemann’s mature oboe sonata of 1740, it is both an acknowledgment of their common heritage in German and Italian styles, as well as, most certainly, of Telemann’s acquaintance with the younger composer’s work.
Purcell Verse Anthem, "Rejoice in the Lord Alway(s)" (c. 1682-1685) Z 49
A subtle and expressive anthem, drawn from the Philippians 4 vv. 4-7, this verse anthem is scored for alto, tenor and bass solos, four-part choir, strings, organ and continuo. The piece justly lives up to its acquired nickname, “The Bell Anthem”: the text entreats praise in a “reverberant” way – an opportunity for Purcell to suggest the repetitive pealing of bells and other iterative motifs. The opening string sinfonia has a repeated eight-note descending scale bass line – clearly evoking the peal of carillons; the upper strings partly invert this pattern, suggesting the dissipation of sound heavenward. Purcell furthers this idea of “echoing” by emphasizing the chiastic form of the text: “Rejoice in the Lord Always and again I say Rejoice,” as well as underscoring the words “again I say” with alternating soli, choir and string ritornelli. The middle section, “Be careful for nothing,” is highlighted by the absence of both ritornelli and the pronounced triple meter that characterized the opening section. Hence, the touching minimalism in this middle section lends a special piety to his text. Finally, the abbreviated return of the first section clarifies the work’s a-b-a’ form, which (“again I say”) demonstrates Purcell’s clever attention to the text’s symmetry and reflexivity.
Handel “Chandos” Anthems, (1717-1718)
The fabulously wealthy James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, Duke of Chandos, lived in an equally fabulous Palladian mansion, “Cannons,” near Edgware, northwest of London. The Duke lavished himself with an orchestra, celebrated musicians, and composers. Handel would be in his employ for two years, and wrote, among others, a set of anthems. The eleven works were modestly scored for vocal soloists, choir, oboe, strings and continuo. In only two of the anthems Handel introduced two recorders. All works draw their text either from the Book of Common Prayer (1662) or Tate and Brady’s New Version of the Psalms. In their lack of ostentation, and, indeed, their reserve, they are equipoised to Purcell’s choral work and Handel’s oratorios.
Chandos Anthem No. 9, O Praise the Lord with One Consent, HWV 254:
Drawn from Psalms 117, 135 and 148 from Tate and Brady, Handel demonstrates his ability to borrow from his own œuvre. The striking bass aria, #4, “That God is great,” was taken from his own "Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne" of 1713, HWV 74. Perhaps as a playful reference to this borrowing, Handel incorporates another annexation: William Croft’s recently composed and very popular “St Anne” (“Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”). The outline of Croft’s hymn is heard in the introduction and opening chorus, and is hinted at in the tenor aria #3. The centerpiece, “With cheerful notes let all the earth to heaven their voices raise,” is one of Handel’s most appealing and beautifully crafted choruses. When “to heaven their voices raise” is sung, the choir sustains a chord on “raise,” almost to breathless exhaustion, while the strings waft and exalt the message heavenward.
Chandos Anthem No. 11, Let God Arise, HWV 256a
Drawn from Psalms 68 and 76, Handel opens with sinfonia, cast in two distinct sections, the latter quicker and more contrapuntal; a half-cadence with an improvised flourish leads to the first chorus – “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scatter’d.” Choppy melismas and passagework depict the scattering of the heathens. Bach was to use a similar idea in his Magnificat (“dispersit superbos mente cordis sui”). In a tenor aria, “Like as the smoke vanish,” the word painting continues in pairing “vanisheth” and “perish,” both of which are followed by extended pauses; vigorous melismas again castigate the ungodly: “thou shall drive them away.” The surprisingly plaintive chorus, “O sing unto God,” follows a celebratory soprano aria. The complex final chorus is cast in three text sections. “Praised be the Lord,” an ethereal and fervent prayer, is intoned mysteriously over slow-moving bass pedal points. Then, in the second section, “At thy rebuke, O God,” Handel realistically depicts the falling of “chariot and horse” by wide descending melodic intervals. Finally, the joyous “Blessed be God, Alleluia” hints at Handel’s most celebrated chorus some twenty-four years later.
Telemann Essercizii musici: Trio Sonata in E-Flat Major, TWV 42:Es3 (1740)
Telemann’s mature chamber music illustrates how the dramatic sensibilities of an opera composer can influence works intended for amateur study and entertainment. Thus, “pure” music is transformed by some ineffable script to a dramatic work. Handel had the same predilection for representation in his sonatas. Telemann’s Trio Sonata in E-Flat is a charming work infused with the playfulness, drama and decorum of a mute character piece. In the C-Minor Mesto, in particular, with its tragic frisson, the oboe sighs and pines for some unrevealed, unrequited love; the harpsichord and continuo, playing the role of Greek chorus, expostulate on the tragedy with a rocking, dotted motif. In the concluding Vivace, all is well again: with hunting horns ablare (or a-tinkled, by the harpsichord), our characters are now diverted by the pleasures of La Chasse.
The Mendelssohn Bicentennial: Crescendo presents rarely heard gems from frère et soeur
March 21, 2009, First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA
Review by S. Lachterman
It is perfectly fitting that on J. S. Bach’s birthday (March 21) a tribute should be paid to two composers who lived a century later: Felix Mendelssohn (his bicentenary year), and his gifted sister, composer Fanny Hensel. By the early nineteenth century, Bach, who was viewed as an antique keyboard pedagogue, was to await Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 for posthumous acclaim. Yet, both Felix (Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) and Fanny (Mendelssohn Hensel) wrote remarkable and beautiful choral works, assimilating an extraordinary palate of antiquarian musical idioms and styles. Their mastery of such Catholic and Lutheran idioms was largely owing to their common tutelage by Carl Friedrich Zelter, who imparted his love of Bach and Palestrina to this gifted musical pair.
Crescendo has become a formidable artistic force in the region, thanks both to the skills of the singers and their incisive and visionary director, Christine Gevert. On March 21 at Great Barrington’s First Congregational Church, joined by the esteemed soprano Julianne Baird and an excellent crew of local vocalists, Crescendo offered a generous sampling of Latin and German motets from the pens of both Mendelssohns. Also, to place the works in the social context of their lives and travels, excerpts from some sixteen letters were read between the musical numbers: a backdrop of narration illuminating the preciously close relationship between Fanny and Felix, meetings with Goethe, quarrels with their father, being covertly Jewish, secrets, amusements, and the frisson of discovering Italy’s musical life. Narrator Juliet Mattila carefully chose these letters, each of which placed the ensuing work in context.
The occlusion of Fannie’s creative genius behind that of her brother was suppression by design: her father merely adopted the sexual ethics of the period, relegating her to play and compose for private salons, out of the limelight beamed for Felix. This gender injustice was compensated for by Gevert’s inclusion of two of Fannie’s vocal works. One, a strophic lied, Die Nonne, written when she was fifteen, was utterly insouciant and lovely. Baird’s affecting interpretation undoubtedly imparted more than what the mere score offered. This was followed by a recently discovered motet, Zum Fest der heiligen Cäciliæ, a ravishing work that occasionally stuns, especially when bass-baritone Steven Dalin trumpeted “Audi et vide et inclina aurem tuam” – “Hear and see! And lend your ear.” It would be a treat if Crescendo offered a full evening of Fannie’s distinctive and evocative musical voice.
Most of the works heard in the concert were by Felix, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year. Choral pieces spanning from 1826 (Felix at seventeen), to his last year (1847), a stylistic mélange, amply demonstrate his cultural Epicureanism, his educated and refined ear, and a willingness to experiment with vocal textures, unusual harmonic changes, and striking solo interjections.
The first, Te Deum laudamus, was strictly contrapuntal, and was most reminiscent of Bach’s motets. The Ave Maria featured a stratospheric tenor part, beautifully sung by Ron M’Sadoques, with responses by groups of male and female voices. While reminding one of Schütz in its bold harmonic contrasts, the atavistic interplay of Baroque, Renaissance, and Romantic makes Mendelssohn’s voice unique. Another experiment, an a capella pastorale for men’s voices, Beati mortui, combined the traditional Christmas idiom with a prayer for “peace at the end.” The female-voiced Surrexit pastor bonus was ethereal, with a concluding Alleluia that was especially reminiscent of Bach’s Lobet dem Herrn. However, the concert’s first part ended with a specimen of Mendelssohn’s polychoral writing, Hora est. Using the Venetian technique, chori-spezzati, where small choruses are spread about the church, a remarkably dramatic work unfolded: a stentorian baritone solo proclaims “The time is nigh,” and voices awaken in the four corners of the church.
In the second half of the concert, the social insights offered by the letters were especially interesting. For example, Felix’s harsh reproach from his father, Abraham, for not using his “Christian” name, Bartholdy, was a glimpse of how wealthy and cultured Jews, who converted to Christianity, thoroughly abjured their ethnicity; indeed, Felix’s father regarded Felix’s use of “Mendelssohn” as a cursed moniker which would be a pariah to Felix’s career and position in society. After hearing this cautionary letter, the ensuing piece, Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? (“My god, why has thou forsaken me”), a plea for deliverance in exchange for a pledge of devotional fealty, provided the most dramatic moments of the concert.
Julianne Baird, of course, shined in the ensembles. However, all other soloists were up to the challenges of this often difficult music. Especially memorable were Jordan Rose Lee, Katherine Griswold, Douglas Schmolze, Steve Dahlin, and Ron M’Sadoques. Kevin Jones provided a sensitive piano accompaniment to Ms. Baird, and also served as organist for choral accompaniment.
The one blemish to the evening offerings was the tribute to J. S. Bach. The grandly plangent final chorus, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, was given short shrift with an allegretto reading that left all pathos in the dust. I doubt that Felix would have approved this tempo. However misjudged the pacing of the last piece, the evening best served Bach indirectly, through the infallible sensibilities of frère et soeur Mendelssohn.
G.F. Handel, Messiah
“Difficult” music, executed by the most skillful musicians for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, is the putative definition of great musical art. Perhaps Bach’s great contrapuntal choral works can be so described. However, the obverse seems to conflate the “popular,” with the “dispensable,” connoting mere light fare. In the canon of choral music, masterpieces of great genius, well suited for amateur performance, but esteemed by almost all, might be reduced to only two works: Handel’s Messiah and Brahms’s Requiem. In particular, Messiah has enjoyed an almost unique position as, perhaps, the most frequently performed work in classical literature. The chorus, “Hallelujah,” the five most quintessential minutes of grandeur known in music, thralls us, stirs us, and as Shakespeare might say, “thunders like a Jove.” The legends that have cropped up about this movement alone convey how much reverence the work inspires. For example, one story goes that George II rose in his seat upon hearing it, impelling all present to do the same – thus, it has become a concert ritual to stand when the chorus delivers. Another tale describes Joseph Haydn weeping upon hearing it in 1791, and uttering that Handel was the “master of us all.” Almost all choruses in Messiah have an infectious pomp. The choruses selected today combine magical doses of archaic splendor with warm jocular dignity that both enchant and coax listeners to sing along. Thus, for generations, “sing-a-long” Messiahs, often termed “Scratch Messiahs,” crop up during Advent with a regularity as the very season itself.
Messiah is also one of the most hastily composed works, occupying Handel a mere twenty-four days in 1741. That it is such a treasure is astonishing. The first public performance took place in Dublin, April 13, 1742. The text, compiled by Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner and amateur theologian, draws from both the Old and New Testaments. In particular, prophetic sections of Isaiah are combined with various Psalm texts, and are juxtaposed with messianic passages from Luke, Corinthians, Romans, and Revelation. The hurried manner of composition, in part due to Handel’s deteriorating financial condition, is belied by the consistent quality of each aria, recitative and chorus. Handel’s textual colorations were never so skillful and subtle.
In today’s “Sing-In,” thirteen sections from Part I (Advent and Christmas) are presented with an aria and chorus from Part II (Romans X); the evening is capped off with the thrilling final choruses of Part III.
But wait don’t leave: one more Hallelujah for good measure!
War and Peace
Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
It's hard to overstate the case for this translation as being essential. It is also hard to avoid hyperbole in its praise. While it might not be the easiest one to read, Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V) have succeeded in a virtual recreation, in English, of Tolstoy's masterpiece on many apparent levels, and on some other very subtle ones. Abstruse as some of their resultant syntax might be on occasion, the beauty of this English prose and utter faithfulness to every aspect of Tolstoy's apparent intentions is remarkable and overwhelming. Viewing the work as a vast proem gives ample opportunity for P&V elucidation of the symmetrical structures in the work. From the use of alliterative micro-sentences like "Silence ensued." and "Drops Dripped." to the almost obsessive repetitions of phrases, we can begin to appreciate Toltoy not merely as a narrative genius, but a Miltonic architect and chiastic formalist. The choice of unusual, sometimes haunting words ties chapters together. For example, in the description of a sick, dysfunctional bee-hive, given a chapter's space by Tolstoy, bees are described as being "laden" or "unladen," ("empty") with pollen. When, in the next chapter, looters pillaging the ruined hulk of Moscow's carcass, are described using these identical adjectives, there can be no mistaking Tolstoy's metaphor.
beaucoup de mots français, БРАВО to Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky!
Now there are two: Solti and Sawallisch. In most aspects, this wonderful Sawallisch production clearly trumps Sir Georg Solti’s recorded just two months earlier. First, Sawallisch’s cast sings expressively, accurately, and musically without the heavy sweating and harsh vocalism that pervades Solti’s. Secondly, Sawallisch claims Die Frau his favorite opera, and his enthusiasm is everywhere evident. Solti’s reading seems dispassionate, workmanlike, and oddly colorless in spite of the ravishing sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sawallisch and the Bavarians aim at lightness, clarity, nuance, and color; while the pace can be a bit too fast (e.g. the final bars of Act III), Sawallisch’s expressiveness is welcome alternative to Solti’s flatland reading. Finally, and most importantly, the soloists here are stronger, more balanced, and in greater control of the opera’s extreme demands. In particular, Janis Martin’s Dyer’s Wife sings this tortuous role with élan aural pleasantness in spite of her shrewish character’s persona. By not sounding like a harridan (as Eva Marten does in Solti’s), we are more likely to believe her redeeming qualities. As the Empress, Luana DeVol’s transparent voice is immediately perceived in her opening moments: those athletic arabesques, set in an uncomfortably high tessitura, indicating the Empress’s ethereal fragility, are sung pitch perfect – a rather unique accomplishment as this role goes. Alan Titus’s Barak, while relaxed, is beautifully sonorous. Peter Seiffert’s Emperor may be the best interpretation since Rene Kollo who practically owned the role a couple of decades ago. Marjana Lipovsek, the Nurse here and on Solti’s disc, is phenomenal in coursing through the jagged and unforgiving barbwire music that Strauss sadistically throws at this villainess.
The production by Ennosuke Ichikawa is a hybrid of Kabuki and Western staging. Characters from Ethereal and Middle worlds (Messenger, Empress, Emperor, Nurse) are in Kabuki dress and move and gesture accordingly. Bara k, his wife and brothers, representing humanity, looking more like Afghan nomads, seem rather smaller than life. The intersection of their fates, juxtaposing the detached idealism of Kabuki with the all-to-human lives of the Baraks, provides yet another way of unifying the concepts of Light and Dark in von Hofmannsthal’s vision. In an Eastern setting, Strauss’s leaping grace notes, which abundantly adorn the Nurse’s role, now seem fittingly Japanese-like.
The few drawbacks in this new DVD might compel some prefer the Solti: Sawallisch takes cuts throughout, while Solti insists (rightly) on an unabridged performance. The timings indicate about a twenty-minute difference. Also, the DTS post-processing on this disc is not as vibrant as on Solti’s. Finally, the Vienna Philharmonic is the more polished machine. In a perfect world one should buy Sawallisch’s first, and if you really love the work, purchase Solti’s, as an indulgence, for a note-complete performance.
From 1991 to 2002 I wrote essays on J. S. Bach's cantatas (and some on Schutz's vocal works) for the Berkshire Bach Society. Some of these appeared from 1999-2002 on the Yale University server. Since then, they've been off the Yale site and there broken links on pages referencing them. Apparently there was some interest in my commentary. The complete collection of essays appeared in hard copy as program notes to the Bach Society's concert series. Slowly, I'll be tracking down the whereabouts of these essays, and, if there's enough interest, I'll post others.
This new Parsial on DG is a truly visionary performance by Christian Thielemann who never fails to amaze. His reading is both pointillist in his illumination of score’s mosaic of tone colors and, at the same time, acutely contrapuntally aware of the music’s complex layers. The set’s only drawback is the unusual amount of stage noise that not only has been allowed to exist, but has been weirdly amplified rather than digitally squelched. Perhaps DG’s engineers wanted an “Amfortas Effect” by lancing this ethereal performance with a shaft of the palpably metallic. What are those sounds? (on-stage swords?, an hare Krishna procession? ). For Parsifal fans like me, who love to bathe in the grandeur of the bell-brass-timpani processions of Act I, the shock of hearing “kling soars,” like so many pieces of fallen silverware, is irritating enough to retire the entire set on a first hearing. I’ve since gotten over this distraction, but it has taken time and patience. As to the singers, this set offers an unconventional package. Placido Domingo, in spite of his odd accent, is a heartfelt and satisfying Parsifal. Throughout the four hours, the other singers give a fresh perspective to the expected role casting. One never finds Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz tedious or terminally vatic. His varied and athletic voice has a light upper register and an affectingly rich lower one. Waltraud Meier’s Kundry is also full of surprises. Unexpected tenderness, and, turning on a dime, hysteria. In all, one never thinks of this Parsifal as the sanctimonious German Easter Parade that one sometimes hears. Thielemann effectively revitalizes this work without sacrificing an ounce of it’s rich beauty. Keep this set with your Knappertsbusch and your Boulez.
Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ was offered up at Tanglewood last night, July 15, 2006. James Levine led the over one-hundred instrumentalists of the Tangelewood Music Center Conservatory, as he did last year with Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, in an initiation of sorts to the world of orchestral gigantism for these extremely talented young musicians. Unlike the Wagner, however, the Strauss score is a virtuoso work in extremis, every bit as unsettling and torrid as retelling of the Greek yarn in the Freud affected play by Hugo von Hoffmansthal. How did the students fare? Well, while the Tanglewood fellows don’t have the chops of the Vienna Philharmonic, they seemed to breeze through the evening playing with remarkable ease and clarity. The score is rife with yawps, dissonant stings, and passages which seem to scurry away faster than the ear can process. Amid this orchestral mayhem, however, are touches of ineffable grandeur. One must pause and give these bars their due. Unfortunately, in Levine’s reading, these momentous passages were ironed out, leaving a technically perfect flatland without the awe of the divine musical peaks. Lisa Gasteen was in pitch-perfect voice, bringing an unusual warmth and luster to the title role. However, she left a lot in reserve, projecting great vocal strength only for those extraordinary outbursts and high-pitched passages. Surviving the two-hour ordeal (widely regarded as the most demanding role in all of opera), was undoubtedly foremost on her mind, and holding back is a logical, if not entirely satisfactory strategy. Her calculated restraint (as well as Levine’s) was most evident in the opening monologue which lacked the spine-tingling passion of Elektra’s obsession. In addition, Ms. Gasteen’s reading missed the on-the-edge madness one expects with this role. After all, the opera features three crazy women, modeled on the then current Freudian theory of “hysteria.” Gasteen’s composure contrasts, for example, with the bug-eyed panther persona of Leonie Rysanek in her unforgettable video performance with Karl Bohm. On the other hand, Felicity Palmer’s Klytomnestra, was hair-raisingly grotesque as the insomniac and baleful she-devil mother of Elektra. Palmer achieved her tortured role without a sacrificing any musical precision. Christine Brewer’s Chrysothemis, like Ms. Gasteen, was musically satisfying, but altogether measured, lacking both the anxiety and absurd insouciance the part demands. The chief male vocalists, Orest (Alan Held) and Aegist (Siegfried Jerusalem) were both superb. Held and Gasteen were perfect complements in the great “recognition” duet; Jerusalem was a perfect foil for Gasteen’s sly sarcasm before the final slaughter. The final fatal dance was brilliant, but the brassy radiance of Elektra’s victory was glossed over.