A recital by The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall of Handel’s little-known Nine German Arias, performed with three of the composer’s oboe works, was a pleasant rather than revelatory evening.
The radiant soprano Carolyn Sampson was on fine form but the music wasn’t enough to lift the concert to the heights of which this singer and ensemble are capable.
The King’s Consort and Carolyn Sampson have collaborated many times before, both in the concert hall and studio, and have a number of outstanding recordings on the market together. Chief among these is Handel’s An Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, an absolute gem which shows off her voice to maximum effect.
The German Arias, soprano accompanied by a small ensemble of chamber instruments, don’t have the same impact. There’s much that’s beautiful about both vocal line and accompaniment but they lack drama and the virtuoso characteristics of operatic arias.
They are written in a wide range of keys and it’s not known exactly why Handel composed them or whether they were even intended to be performed together. They are among the few works that he wrote in his native language and date from the 1720s, several of them bearing similarities to material from contemporary operas such as Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda.
The arias are based on a set of poems by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, writer of the better known Passion set by Handel, and celebrate God through His manifestation in nature. This makes for an attractive set of lyrics praising rivers, flowers, meadows and springtime.
The recital was a little slow to warm up, with a slight imbalance at first between the instruments and voice. The violin in particular (Stphanie-Marie Degand) overpowered the singer at times during the buoyant first two arias. This settled down for the third and fourth arias, gentler in nature, and these for me were the highlight of the evening. Sampson had some lovely sustained notes, with particularly beautiful violin accompaniment in “Knft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer” – “Futile anxiety for times to come”.
The arias were performed in pairs interspersed with three of Handel’s Oboe Sonatas (B flat, C minor and F major). Soloist Alexandra Bellamy gave a sensitive performance in each of the latter, despite some insecure notes in the last work. They didn’t add any much-needed impetus, though, and introducing other instruments might have varied the intermediate pieces.
The remainder of the five-part ensemble was made up of Jonathan Cohen on cello, Lynda Sayce on lute and theorbo and Artistic Director Robert King on harpsichord and organ. All six performers participated in the encore, “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo, and here at last we got some of the passion and drama that was lacking in the main recital.
I will, no doubt, buy the disc of the German Arias that The King’s Consort and Carolyn Sampson are to release soon and I hope that on repeated listenings I will warm to them. Alas, on this first hearing, it felt like a slight waste of great resources.