The Handel Obsession
Norfolk Chamber Consort
Monday, November 7, 2011
Christ and St. Luke's Church
Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk Chamber Consort Takes on
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Written by John Campbell with extensive notes from MD Ridge

The audience was treated to an evening of chamber music composed by one of the western world's greatest composers. I am sure that Handel, a leading impresario 300 years ago in London would have been very proud of our local impresario, Andrey Kasparov, who organized an evening of George Frideric's music performed by the area's finest players and singers.

Handel's reputation today rests on one major work, Messiah, but this, as Mr. Kasparov put it, “left people in our area hungry to hear more of his music.” Virginia Opera has offered three operas: Julius Caesar (1997), Rodelinda (2000) and Agrippina (2007). In 2003, Virginia Arts Festival, culminating a five-year run with Mark Morris Dance Company, presented a period music live performance of L'allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a choral work from 1740 with a luxury cast of Baroque soloists and conductor Jane Glover.

What we had not heard was his chamber music that “breathes an unusual kind of vigor, breadth and invention.” The program called The Handel Obsession was preceded by a talk by Allen Shaffer who introduced the first piece, Trio Sonata in A Major, Op.5, No.1, and answered the question: why are there four players in this trio? The answer: because the harpsichord and bassoon play the same notes; this continuo, or basso continuo as it is known in Baroque music, provides the bass line. The players were Sherie Aguirre and George Corbett on oboe, David Savige, bassoon, and Mr. Shaffer at the harpsichord. The Andante – Adagio first movement was stately. The Allegro second had bright, lively skeins of melody interwoven with ease. There was a broad grandeur in the third, Larghetto – Allegro movement. The final movement, Gavotte, originally derived from a French folk dance, had a moderate rhythm and was formal in feeling.

Next we heard soprano Amy Cofield Williamson, formerly of Tidewater and now resident in Roanoke, who returned for this performance. She sang Nel dolce dell'oblio, HWV 134 (In the sweetness of oblivion), written while Handel lived in Italy and was most likely from one of some fifty secular cantatas written for a wealthy marchese while Handel was employed as household musician c.1707-1709. (These notes are from a CD of Kathleen Battle and Jean Pierre Rampal in Concert, Sony SK53106.) It was wonderful to hear Ms. Williamson's gorgeous soprano voice again. It is not easy to get all those syllables into one soaring, ornamented line evenly and without visible effort, but she did. In conversation at the reception Ms. Williamson said “If you lose concentration, even for a moment, it'll all come crashing down.”

This was followed by Tom Marshall on harpsichord in Passacaglia from Suite in G minor, HWV 432 (1720). It was interesting to hear the petite sound of a harpsichord in this large space playing repeated patterns of many notes that emphasized the buzzy bass of the instrument.

The fun really began when Ms. Williamson returned with baritone Christopher Mooney, and with Mr. Marshall still at the harpsichord, to sing Tacete, ohime, tacete, HWV 184 (Hush, oh hush). Cupid sleeps in a flowery cradle and they must not disturb his rest … only when Love's asleep, the world's at peace. They offered layer on layer of vocal ornamentation, trills, turns, rapid alternation of repeated separated notes, contrasting his richness and her brilliance. One voice held a sustained note, building and building, while the other voice danced around it. Then they traded places, creating gorgeous, long lines that melted into each other. In the sustained line near the end I heard an amazing new quality in Mr. Mooney's voice that was so beautiful, so majestic. He explained later that Handel wrote as if the voice were an instrument and the singer's task is just to sing the notes, so he imagined his voice as an instrument and sang what was written. Quite a formula for magic, I say.

Both singers told us that the notes Handel wrote were in their vocal sweet spot so their blend was excellent. (There is talk of finding more duets by Handel for future programs.) The second duet, Che vai pensando, HWV 196 (What are you thinking, mad thought), says if it is false hope, think no more; I do not want to suffer. This brief text is the framework upon which Handel built such brilliant vocal lines, weaving a silken tapestry of sound. The harpsichord was in the mix, unobtrusive but essential. The conclusion was clear and powerful. If the program had ended there we could have left the hall exuberant, but after intermission we were treated to another category of Handel's music: three concerti grossi with an expanded baroque orchestra of seventeen players conducted by Mr. Kasparov.

For our intermission feature, let us become more familiar with Handel's history. Handel was born on February 23, 1685, the same year Bach (March 21) and Domenico Scarlatti (October 26) were born, bringing the Baroque to its height and to its end at their deaths between 1750 and 1760. Harmonic complexity and emphasis on contrast were developed to a high degree. The emergence of the sonata, the suite and concerto grosso were their handiwork.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and attended the university there. At age eighteen he went to Hamburg as an opera musician. His first opera, Almira, was staged there in 1705. He took a job in an Italian prince's retinue where he met Corelli and the Scarlattis, rapidly learned Italian style and became a celebrated composer of opera, chamber and vocal music. In his book, Lives of the Great Composers, Harold Schonberg recounts the story of a harpsichord and organ duel between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti in Italy. On harpsichord they were declared equal. On organ, Scarlatti said that until he had heard Handel he had no conception of the power of an organ.

In 1710 Handel came back to Hanover as a court musician to the Elector. Later in the year he took a leave of absence to travel to London and immediately joined in the then fashionable entertainment – Italian opera. In 1711, exactly 300 years ago, his new opera, Rinaldo, came to the stage. A steady stream of operas flowed from his pen through 1740 – some forty altogether, at the rate of two a year. In this same period of time he wrote ten dramatic oratorios. The idea that he stopped composing operas and turned to writing oratorios is simply not true. Messiah (1741) and some fourteen other oratorios followed through 1757.

Remember that leave of absence from the Elector of Hanover's court to come to London? In 1714 Queen Anne died and the Elector became King George I of England. Handel sweated about what might happen to him. His Water Music pleased the King greatly but the story that it restored Handel to the King's favor is unlikely to be true. Even after being blinded by strokes he continued to write music for several more years. He and died in 1759.

Intermission over, we heard the Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op.3, No.1 HWV 312. Dated 1712-1733, it was probably written around 1716; it and Op.3, No.6, HWV 317 were published in a set of six concerti grossi in 1734 in London. The differences in style made it clear that a young composer was striving to find his personal voice. The oboe was prominent in both pieces and the instrumental colors had a raw energy that was exciting to hear. The tempi were brisk but never breathless or rushed. Movement titles, not listed in the program were Allegro, Largo and Allegro in order. In M.D. Ridge's notes, her image of the first movement was a lively, skirling silvery rocket in the air that unreels into colorful streamers.

In Op.3, No.6, again the oboes were prominent in the first, Vivace, movement. The combination of organ (Shaffer) and harpsichord (Marshall) is unusual but interesting to hear together. This has led scholars to conclude that this concerto dates from the first half of the 1730s because of the interchangeability of the two instruments since he did this in other works of that period. The organ solo passages were slower paced and somber but when the ensemble resumed playing the energy blossomed with lovely organ filigree. The overall experience was fun and delightful.

Organ Concerto in B-flat Major, Op.7, No.3, HWV 308 (1751) by its date indicates a major work, with the ensemble not so busy as in the earlier concerti. The second movement, Adagio e Fuga ad libitum, indicates that the organist is to create the fuga as it is being performed, apparently easy for Handel but Mr. Shaffer played the Adagio in F Major from the Second Suite. The third movement, Spiritoso, opened by strings with variations and closed with a fourth movement, Minuet, with organ predominating.

Before the Organ Concerto began, conductor Kasparov promised a musical riddle. When the piece was finished he asked the audience where the theme came from . . .voices all over saying, “The Messiah,” “Hallelujah Chorus.” After a beat, he said yes, they were correct, then added, “For the encore, if you don't mind, we'll do the 'Hallelujah Chorus.'” Allen Shaffer called out, “The choir didn't show up tonight!” Kasparov, with a sweep of his hand, brought the audience into an unrehearsed singalong with Amy Williamson, way in the back of the church, leading the soprano part, loud and clear. Much fun but I was disappointed that an evening that explored Handel's music so widely ended back at Messiah, that lovely but much overused piece.

Handel was cosmopolitan, a prince of public entertainers, a pantheist and gay hedonist who loved to depict the sensual pleasures. It is a sad fact of history that he has been co-opted by the English as a religious composer. This marble monument of respectability has separated him from his true audience. Fortunately in our lifetime this has gradually changed so that many of us know him as “a good old pagan at heart“ (Victorian Edward Fitzgerald) who left us much marvelous music to be re-discovered.

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