Release date: 27 October 2023
Opera at home?
Attending the opera was a central part of social life in 18th-century London: during the season, members of London’s upper class spent several evenings a week at the theater, and the singers’ airs and graces provided ideal topics of conversation both in newspapers and in drawing rooms.
But what was a music lover to do outside of the turbulent opera season? Sound recordings of the music did not exist, but eager publishers sensed business in selling sheet music for the most popular arias and pieces from each opera shortly after they premiered, arranged for reduced instrumentation that could be easily obtained for domestic music-making. The most extensive collection of this kind is a multi-volume series by John Walsh entitled Sonatas or Chamber Aires and aptly described as “Being the most Celebrated Songs & Arias collected out of all the late Operas Compos’d by Mr. Handel.” With the help of such arrangements, opera lovers of the 18th century could enjoy their favorite melodies at home — without orchestra or vocal soloists.
The idea of this program is to revive the tradition of performing Handel’s operatic works at home — a practice that is little cultivated today. False Consonance wants to free the arrangement from the reputation of being amateurish with inferior quality and rehabilitate them as a serious music-making practice by mixing historical arrangements with their own.
In compiling the individual pieces from various operas by Handel, the ensemble is guided by a set of standard scenes of 18th-century opera seria: the lamento, the love duet or the revenge aria, and strings them together not with threads of content or a concrete idea of a plot, but rather with dramaturgical tension. The result is an instrumental opera-in-miniature, as it might have sounded in the living rooms and music salons of the 18th century.
Having removed all text from the music, the composer himself is thrown into the fore as the “hero” so to speak, and becomes the titular character of this opera: Il Sassone was the nickname he was given during his time in Italy.
The richest treasure trove of arrangements of Handel’s music is the publisher John Walsh, who published collections of the music of several of London’s most celebrated composers, the most extensive of which appeared from 1725 in seven volumes under the title Sonatas and Chamber Airs for a German Flute, Violin or Harpsichord Being the most Celebrated Songs & Ariets Collected out of the late Operas Compos’d by Mr. Handel. In these arrangements, the orchestral ritornelli, all of which merely reflect the part of the first violin, merge abruptly into the vocal entries, often leading to awkward situations in which musical lines have not always been elegantly resolved. The original vocal sections are accompanied only by the basso continuo; the orchestral accompaniment is not transferred. For these reasons, among others, Walsh’s arrangements have been widely regarded as inferior and are therefore rarely heard in concert to this day.
John Walsh was not the only one to arrange Handel’s operatic works during his lifetime: of particular interest is a manuscript from The Hague (NL-DHa K XIX 1) for flauto piccolo, viola da gamba, and basso continuo with seven arias by Handel from a variety of operas, which must have been written after the year 1736. The original vocal part is played by the viola da gamba, often transposed an octave down and sometimes adding double stops or other figures idiomatic to the instrument, while the part of the first violin is taken over by the flute. It is possible that the manuscript is connected with Princess Anne, who resided in The Hague after her marriage to William IV and — as contemporary witnesses report — had previously been one of Handel’s favorite pupils.
In putting this program together, the ensemble aims to engage in the spirit provided by the historical sources and find something new and original whereby the large is made small and the small is made large: through the performance of these works as chamber music, a new intimacy is explored in depth; by arranging it in the form of an opera, this intimacy of the living room is transformed into the grandeur of the operatic stage.
The sparkling opening overture from the opera Alessandro is immediately followed by one of Handel’s best-known arias from Alcina (1735): The pensive cantilena “Verdi prati”, originally a description of green meadows and pastures, is heard here in Walsh’s arrangement and in intimate scoring with only traverso and theorbo. The pastoral opening scene, however, is quickly interrupted by the stormy bass aria “Sorge infausta” (Orlando) where the cello takes over the vocal part, then suddenly takes a turn for the melancholy with the farewell duet “Io t’abbraccio” (Rodelinda). The act concludes with the two characteristic dance movements “Chaconne & Sarabande” from Handel’s first-ever opera Almira.
This act begins with a special arrangement of an aria, which is presented here as a world premiere recording. It is a historical arrangement of the aria “Vedrò più liete e belle” (Lotario) for flute, viola da gamba and basso continuo from a manuscript from The Hague, in which the viol takes the vocal part. After a brief tender Sinfonia (Saul) for baroque guitar (originally intended by Handel for the harp), the mood is abruptly reversed with a raging fury in the aria “Vorrei vendicarmi” (Alcina). The calming of the frenzied violin back into courtly decorum is accomplished — as usual in Handel’s operas — by means of a little minuet (Giulio Cesare) arranged by John Walsh for two soprano instruments. Alone, this attempt at calm does not succeed and the rage turns into deep dejection and melancholy, expressed in the aria “Si, son quella” (Alcina).
As an introduction to the third and last part, no opera music is heard, but rather a four-movement trio sonata in b-minor from Handel’s Opus 2 for violin, flute and basso continuo. The operatic reference is nevertheless present, for Handel used the third movement (Largo) of the sonata already in 1707 in the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and later also as material for his aria “Vaghe fonti” (Agrippina).
The trio sonata is followed by the touching lamento “Ombre, piante, urne funeste!” (Rodelinda), in which the viola da gamba once again takes over the original vocal part, but this time in a version arranged by the ensemble. Problems that seem unsolvable are often resolved in baroque opera with a simple trick — called deus ex machina in the theatrical repertoire: completely abruptly and surprisingly, the conflict and all its relevant problems are resolved. This role is assumed by the violin in a short charming prelude that seamlessly leads into the joyful aria “Da tempeste” (Giulio Cesare), which originally is reserved for the moment where Cleopatra realizes, that even after the darkest night and the heaviest storm there is light in people’s lives. It is thus a perfect example of the obligatory lieto fine in baroque opera. The happy ending is again sustained with the final movement “Entrée & Tambourin” from the opera Alcina.
Annie Gard was born in Australia, where she completed her Bachelor's degree with first class honours at the Sydney Conservatory of Music. Two years later she received her Master's degree from The Juilliard School in New York. Various invitations brought her to Europe, where she played under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. This was followed by engagements with The English Concert and with Boston Early Music Festival, as well as Pinchgut Opera in Sydney. She has performed at festivals including William Christie's Festival Dans Les Jardins in France and the Festival Teatro Nuovo in New York. Annie currently lives and works in Germany.
Johannes Festerling, Guitar and Theorbo
Thomas Fields, Viola da gamba and Cello
Annie Gard, Violin
Theo Small, Recorder and Traverso
Johannes Festerling received his first musical training at the Kreismusikschule Wernigerode in the Harz Mountains Region (Saxony-Anhalt) of Germany. He studied classical guitar with Prof. Jens Wagner at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen, where he was already intensively involved in performance practice on historical guitar and lute instruments. He subsequently took up studies in early music with Prof. Joachim Held and has since performed regularly both as a soloist and as a continuo player, including with the European Hanseatic Ensemble (Manfred Cordes), Utrecht Company of Music, Musica assoluta (Hannover), the Boys' Choir Unser Lieben Frauen Bremen (Ulrich Kaiser) and various chamber music ensembles. In 2020 he was cultural ambassador for the State of Bremen at the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of German reunification. He has received much encouragement and inspiration from masterclasses with renowned lutenists such as Nigel North, Paul O'Dette and Evangelina Mascardi.
Theo Small was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up in a musical family. His parents were both keen amateur recorder players and much of Theo’s early life was spent playing consort music with his family. After graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with a Bachelor of Music (Performance - Recorder and Traverso), Theo moved to Germany to begin a Masters of Music at the Hochschule für Künste Bremen, studying with Prof. Marten Root. Theo has performed with groups such as De Nederlandse Bachvereniging, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Orchestra and Musica Sequenza and worked with conductors such as Phillipe Herreweghe, Neal Peres da Costa and Brett Weymark. Alongside his career as a performing musician, Theo has worked as a cabinet maker and an audio technician.
The gambist and cellist Thomas Fields was born in Minneapolis, United States, where he grew up. He studied cello at the Eastman School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, during which time he began to deepen his interest and experience with historical performance practice on both cello and viola da gamba. In 2017 he moved to Germany to study a masters in viola da gamba with Prof. Hille Perl at the Hochschule für Künste Bremen, after which he pursued postgraduate studies on viola da gamba with Prof. Friederike Heumann at the Hochschule für Musik Würzburg. He has attended master classes with Paolo Pandolfo, Vittorio Ghielmi, Jaap ter Linden, Christophe Coin, among others, and also received the China Government Scholarship as a visiting student in musicology at the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, China. Thomas has performed in venues such as Carnegie Hall, St. Thomas Church (Leipzig), Fondazione Giorgio Cini (Venice), and the National Center for the Performing Arts (Beijing).
George Frideric Handel (b Halle, 23 Feb 1685; d London, 14 April 1759). English composer of German birth. Though consistently acknowledged as one of the greatest composers of his age, his reputation from his death to the early 20th century rested largely on the knowledge of a small number of orchestral works and oratorios, Messiah in particular. In fact, he contributed to every musical genre current in his time, both vocal and instrumental. The composition of operas, mainly on Italian librettos, dominated the earlier part of his career, and are the finest (though not the most typical) of their kind. In his later years his commitment to large-scale vocal works, usually with a strong dramatic element, found a more individual outlet in English oratorio, a genre that he invented and established.