United Kingdom Handel, Bach, Buxtehude: Christiane Karg (soprano), Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen (director), Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 10.6.2015.(GP)
Handel: 9 German Arias
J.S. Bach: Trio Sonata BWV 1079
Buxtehude: Sonata in A minor for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo, BuxWV254
Buxtehude: Sonata in B-flat major for violin, da gamba and basso continuo, BuxWV255
Given a programme made up (as advertised at any rate) of Handel’s 9 German Arias (which has long been a particular favourite of mine) and trio sonatas by Buxtehude, and given the internationally recognised excellence of soprano Christiane Karg and Jonathan Cohen’s ensemble Arcangelo, I naturally had high expectations of this concert.
In fact, although there was indeed much to admire and enjoy, the evening was in some respects slightly disappointing. Some of my sense of disappointment may have been due to non-musical reasons, including my own state of mind. I was, unfortunately, distracted by concerns about some family ill-health and by irritating difficulties with a new mobile phone. The audience for the concert was disappointingly – one might say shamefully – small, which didn’t help either my mood or the general atmosphere. I was also disappointed when I saw the printed programme of the concert, for two reasons. Firstly, that Handel’s German Arias were not to be sung as a group but in smaller sub-groups interleaved, as it were, with the chamber sonatas (which turned out not to be exclusively by Buxtehude). The 9 Arias are not, of course, a song-cycle and there is nothing sacrosanct about their published order. But they do very much form a unified work, both musically and textually, and the strengthening interconnections between the arias are inevitably less clearly delineated when they are not performed as a coherent group. No doubt to sing all nine one after another makes for a big sing for a soloist, but not more so, surely, than, say, the 24 songs of Die Winterreise, or many an operatic role? A second disappointment was that nowhere in the programme was the audience provided with the names of the violinist, flautist, gambist or lutenist who made up Arcangelo, alongside Jonathan Cohen, on this occasion.
It was also somewhat disappointing that no such information was provided in the form of brief introductions during the performance; indeed, there was no verbal interaction with the audience at all until Christiane Karg announced the encore at the end of the performance.
I had not previously heard the estimable Ms. Karg sing live. I had, though, listened to her on several CDs, primarily in Romantic and late-Romantic repertoire. She is undoubtedly a very fine artist and as a performer of these ‘arias’ by Handel she has some advantages, notably that of being a native-speaker of German whose recordings of the songs of, inter alia, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Strauss and Berg have shown her to be a singer with a flair for the interpretation of sung poetry. And, indeed, Karg’s subtle understanding of the ways in which the poetry of the texts in these arias worked was everywhere evident. But, I have to confess, that Ms. Karg’s voice is not really the kind of soprano voice I like best in this work. The 9 German Arias, to my mind, constitute a neglected minor masterpiece and I have listened to many recordings of them. Amongst those I admire most are ones by Emma Kirkby, Carolyn Sampson and Arelene Auger. All of these singers, perhaps most obviously Dame Emma, have lighter, purer soprano voices than Ms. Karg, voices intrinsically more agile. These texts by Handel’s friend Barthold Heinrich Brockes, as edited by Handel in the process of selection, express a sense of religious wonder in the recognition of God’s generous goodness as expressed in the beauty of nature, light and colour, in “pleasant bushes in which there are intermingled light and shade” (what John Milton called “the chequered shade”), hurrying rivers, trees and flowers in bloom in the splendour of spring, in the petals of sweet flowers. In HWV 204 (‘Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken’) the protagonist addresses thus the flowers with their “amber petals”:
Da ihr fällt, will ich mich schwingen
Himmelwärts, und den besingen
Der die Welt hervorgebracht.
As your petals fall, I shall soar
Heavenwards, praising Him
Who brought forth the world.
(translation by Richard Stokes)
For me, that soaring of the spirit was never fully articulated in Ms. Karg’s singing, and the same might be said about her response to Handel’s glorious musical interpretation the sparkle and movement of the “zitternde Glänzen der spielenden Wellen” (the scintillating brilliance of playful waves) in HWV 203. Still, I found much to admire in Christiane Karg’s singing, not least her security of intonation and clarity of diction and her expressive timbral colouring, even if I wasn’t fully convinced that she did full justice to the contemplative rapture of some of these arias. Her considerable virtues were heard at their best in her reading of ‘Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden’ (HWV 210), in which the weight of her voice was used very well, with a passionate ardour responsive to the quasi-mystic (and perhaps there are allusions to the Rosy Cross of the Rosicrucians?) overtones of the text.
If I had some slight reservations about the performance of Handel’s German Arias, I was quite without such reservations when it came to most of the purely instrumental music on the programme. Any good performance (which this was) of the trio sonata from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer is, of course, a delight. But, for me, the greatest joy was Arcangelo’s performance of Buxtehude’s Trio Sonata in A minor (BuxWV 254), one of the sonatas published in the composer’s Opus 1 set (undated, but most likely published in 1694). It is made up of seven short sections, all of them brilliant and technically demanding (as in the octave leaps for the violin in the allegro second section). The contrasts between the sections are striking and the whole, which is very brief (between ten and eleven minutes in performance) is like a string of small pearls, glittering and exquisite. These pearls, though they include some moments of dissonance, are not, it should be stressed, those rough or imperfect pearls whose name (barroco in Spanish) is often cited as the etymological origin of the term ‘baroque’. Buxtehude’s pearls, in this Trio Sonata, are perfect in themselves and beautifully ‘set’ in sequence. I wish I could name (see above) the violinist who gave an outstanding performance of the piece.
Though the audience was small, its applause prompted the performers to give us an encore. In doing so, the connection with the poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes was maintained, when Christiane Karg sang (very movingly) one of the Daughter of Zion’s arias (‘Brich, mein Herz’) from Handel’s Brockes Passion, written around 1716, some ten years before the 9 German Arias. This excellent performance rounded off the evening perfectly; it was so well sung and played as finally to rid me of my initial grumpiness and unresponsiveness!