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One of England's leading Baroque sopranos, Grace Davidson is here joined by the Academy of Ancient Music in a programme of Handel and Vivaldi—her debut orchestral recording.
The initial calming of the winds is a remarkable unfurling of the tension of the stormy writing of the opening, reducing the energy of the music in a manner which suggests future depictions of nature by Haydn. The aria 'Dulcis amor' is a soothing dialogue between voice and instruments—classic, noble Handel in brilliant word-setting. An accompanied recitative 'O fortunata' separates this from the second, Andante-allegro-andante aria 'Date serta', whose rapid central section, again in a contrasting triple time, gives the listener a taste of the joy of the Alleluia as the winds rouse themselves once more. It might be the use of a walking bass in both of the arias which lends such an unmistakably Handelian dignity to the music. The final paean of just one word Alleluia allows the voice to have the upper hand of athleticism over the players, throwing in a high B at the end of the race.
The discovery of Georg Frideric Handel’s Gloria in 2001, unnoticed for so many years in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London, is a salutary tale. It continues to be referred to quaintly in the HWV classification as 'deest' (Latin for ‘doesn’t exist’), even after its emergence into the artistic daylight. In this age of easy information, it is still possible that, if somebody allows an original manuscript to be passed down and put in a drawer, there’s a chance that it will not arouse any interest for a considerable time. Probably commissioned by Francesco Maria Ruspoli for service in his estate chapel at Vignanello, this cantata for solo soprano, two violins and basso continuo was bound as part of a volume of Handel’s arias, not in the composers hand, in the possession of a William Savage (1729-1789) apparently passing to his pupil, Robert Stevens who seems to have bequeathed the volume to the RAM in 1837. The Principal of the Academy at the time of discovery, Professor Curtis Price expressed the opinion that the work is ‘fresh, exuberant and a little wild in places, but unmistakably Handel’. What is also clear is that it shares an equally unmistakable flavour of Italy in many aspects of its writing. This it shares with such similarly influenced works by the composer such as ‘Dixit Dominus’—extrovert exuberance in the florid coloratura of the vocal line, confident interplay with the obbligato violins and particular harmonic devices which tug at a the heart in their emotional power. There is one fingerprint which has become known as a Neapolitan in harmonic terms: the first inversion of the flattened super-tonic, a signature which many will associate with Vivaldi, but which makes itself felt as recently as in the music of Italian films of the 20th century. There is also the use of separated, dry string chords—termed 'secco' like the white win—in both the 'Et in terra pax' and the 'Cum Sancto Spiritu', which would have been quite foreign to British audiences of the era and which are more reminiscent of the programmatic picture-painting in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons than as a mere instrumental accompaniment to a sacred work.
Six titled musical sections subdivide in effect into eight parts, following the text of the Gloria from the Mass. Some of this material can be found, reworked, in Laudate pueri and the Utrecht Jubilate. The opening 'Gloria' is an exuberant paean of joy with two outriding violins offering a musical companionship reminiscent of Monteverdi. 'Et in terra' combines jabbing, string accompaniment with languishing suspensions. 'Laudamus' features a descending triad which might even suggest a bowing or a genuflexion to God. 'Gratias' offers grace and gracefulness in triple metre while 'Domine Deus' is supported by the basso continuo alone, with a sense of prowling in the bass line’s chromatic progression. 'Qui tollis' allows the violins back into the picture with graded antiphony, the voice retreating into a supporting role. 'Quoniam', and 'Cum Sancto' make extreme demands of the singer in moto perpetuo passagework which points to Handel’s capacity for fresh ideas and techniques, in an athletic offering for which we should be grateful.
Salve regina HWV241
This intriguing work for solo soprano, violins in two parts, obbligato organ and cello, and basso continuo dates from Handel’s earlier visit to Italy and was probably first performed on Trinity Sunday, 19 June 1707 in the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, Vignanello. Significantly, this was exactly one month before Dixit Dominus was first heard and the sharing of expressive styles and athletic, Italianate flavour is immediately evident. This text, among the most familiar in the Roman Church since it was written in the 11th century (probably by the monk, Hermann von Reichenau) is one of the four Antiphons to Our Lady, this one being used from the Saturday before Trinity Sunday until the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. Besides concluding the recitation of the Rosary, it was, and still is, the final utterance of monastic communities at Compline before the Great Silence of the night. This might have had a significance in the way that Handel scores the music. It seems that he was not merely marrying words and music without an in-depth consideration of the words, previously unfamiliar to him, but without doubt known intimately to those who would hear his setting.
The essence of this prayer, known in English as 'Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy', is that of supplication, imploring Mary to be a divine mediator in our journey through life. The opening movement is itself full of devices which point to a deep sympathy by the composer for these sentiments. A pulsing, paired-note bass-line possesses something of the heartbeat, the inverted violin interjections with their repeated common notes at the top of the phrases suggesting the merciful Mother of Christ, while the soprano takes on the role of the voice of the person praying. Those very words, 'Mater misericordiae', are set with an anguished, chromatic pulling apart in tandem with the violins who adopt an almost vocal role. 'Ad te clamamus' moves into triple metre, yet the layout of the composer’s manuscript reveals a much broader sweep to the span of the music as he divides the material on the page not in groups of three but in a broader sweep of twelve beats to a bar. I acknowledge that this is no doubt to save ink, but the impression on the paper can influence the musician’s approach, whether or not the listeners are in the know. There is some remarkable melodic writing here and, to most ears, the juxtaposition of F sharp and A flat is a surprise. The actual word 'clamamus' ('we cry') comes with a gloriously sunny, major 4/2 harmony, radiating for a longer time than expected. The Italian, vocal style was well used to sighings of one sort or another but Handel was brave to set 'Suspiramus' with literal breathlessness, leaving complete silences which must have seemed most romantic in a sacred work. Cascading canonic texture among the violins and the voice are as the falling tears in the valley (also the soprano’s lowest note) and the desolation is echoed by the dwindling writing of the violins who merge into a unison, lonely, final note.
All is far from constant gloom as the 'Eia ergo' bursts into a section which is little short of a concertante movement with every combination of joyful interaction for solo organ, cello, the violins and the voice. How we are fortunate that George Frideric saw the need clearly to impress his patrons in a style which would have been entirely within their culture, but maybe exceeding their expectations. Again Handel surprises us, using economical but virtuosic forces, and doubtlessly enjoying his own organ showcase.
Nevertheless, the masterstroke is the engineering of the final, meditative section 'O clemens'. We are returned to the context of prayerful supplication in the manner of Handel’s Italian predecessors. The exuberance of the previous movement is pared down, as in the beginning, to a final, unison note.
Nulla in mundo pax sincera RV630
Nulla in mundo pax sincera is a sacred motet written in 1735 for the Coro of the Pio Ospedale della Pieta. It reminds us of the talent which must have been at the disposal of the Maestri of this foundling establishment in Venice; the athletic vocal writing and its relentlessly high tessitura reserves it for only the bravest of sopranos. The text is unattributed, like so many of these works—used as an opportunity to escape the restrictions of ecclesiastical texts and is an opportunity to insert a show-piece into the structure of the Liturgy, or an Office such as Vespers. If the general slant of the text escaped the censure of the authorities, then they served composers, performers and church-goers equally well.
The format is conventional—aria, recitative, aria with a final alleluia—and the instrumentation looks on the face of it to be conventional string ensemble, yet much in this work is remarkable. In terms of instrumentation, the two violins provide not only ritornelli and relief for the voice, but are engaged in dialogue with the vocal line, soothing caresses to support the sense of the verse in the opening phrases and joyous pealing in the final Alleluia section. The viola is no mere textural filler, taking on an elevated bass role at various points, adding to a somewhat heavenly mood throughout.
The first movement’s text is directed to Jesus himself, acknowledging that in life’s pains, torments and bitterness true peace alone lies in Him. The recitative and second aria warn us of the transitory attractions of the world in which the tempter attempts to trick us with superficial and poisonous pleasures. But, in the end, reassurance gains the upper hand.
In musical terms the melodic and harmonic treatment of the opening siciliano, with its dotted lilting shape is a bittersweet blend of anguish and soothing. Optimistic, chromatic ascents are countered by falling intervals in the vocal line. But it is one particularly Neapolitan, harmonic feature which lends a feel of suffering. The flattening of the leading note to D natural on the word ‘felle’ (bitterness) is immediately pulled back to the extreme sharpness of the dominant seventh (G sharp major) of the relative minor key at the words ‘Sweet Jesus’. In plainer language, there’s a great deal of angst in the design of the music. As the central section of the da capo aria progresses, the texture thins out, with the viola, unusually for this era, stepping up to the plate and supporting the violins and voice when the talk is of the virtue of chaste love. There is an elevated feel to this quasi-choral polyphony, when the purity of the final unison C sharp nods towards the moral advice being given.
The subsequent recitative continues the warning that all that glitters in the world’s delights might have a downside. Far from being a structural filler, the movement is replete with arioso style, pictorial writing and even some conversational imitation between the voice and the accompanying bassline.
'Spirat anguis' might be viewed as a little respite for the voice before the final movement, but it shows subtle imagination nevertheless. The vocal line is subsumed into the violins’ line and while the feature of the upward flourish on ‘spirat’ (in effect the snake’s hissing) might suggest the creature’s uncurling, it is notable that the musical texture for much of this section is in a mere two parts with the viola once more taking the sole, supporting role. This instrument has a solo moment of playful interjection, surely sliding as the snake in a single bar of a downward scale.
It is in the final Alleluia that the soprano’s supremacy is reestablished, with coloratura to take her own breath away and a melodic style which is plainly violinistic. Vivaldi at his most joyful and exuberant.
Greg Murray © 2018
Special thanks to my dearest parents, Nigel and our wonderful children for their constant love and support.
Grace Davidson © 2018