Georg Frederick Handel (1685 -1759)
‘Love and Madness'
Johannette Zomer, soprano
Bart Schneemann, oboe
In London, a visitor to Westminster Abbey can find the grave of a famous Englishman with a German name: Georg Friedrich Händel. He set forty operas on the London stage, as well as more than fifteen oratorios and other large-scale vocal works. As the Hanover kings George I and II ruled over England, Händel, the giant from Saxony, dominated the English musical scene with his operas and oratorios from 1711 until his death. And in many an English salon his sonatas and concerti grossi were eagerly performed, even a century after his death. Händel died at the age of 74 after a rich and eventful life. That was in 1759. Three thousand mourners accompanied England's most famous musician to his final resting place. Three years after his funeral, the celebrated monument by the sculptor Roubiliac was erected. And twenty-five years after his death, Westminster Abbey was the scene of a commemorative performance of his Messiah. Literally hundreds of singers and orchestral musicians took part. And later on in London there was a gigantic performance with no fewer than 3000 singers.
Händel, a child of his time, was fascinated by the poignant human dramas and emotions exemplified by Greek and Roman classical myths, dramas, and poetry. A theatre composer to his very bones, he devoted himself to the portrayal of human psychology. He had a special interest in those moments when the human psyche is at its most vulnerable: moments of indecision, struggle, despair, fury, abandonment, betrayal, unhappy love, conflict with friends, enemies, and fate, or longing for the oblivion of death. Händel's operas were beloved, and they drew audiences in London because of their recognizable depiction of these emotions: the contemplation of suffering fascinates, moves, and soothes the individual observer's own personal suffering. Lamentations or explosions of fury, written for an injured, despairing, or abandoned woman, were even deliberately inserted by the composer as high points in an evening-long operatic performance. And with his unusually expressive and virtuosic music, Händel strove to fascinate his audience with a constant supply of new stimuli, spurring them, by means of powerful discharges of emotion, to experience a vast range of feelings.
For this purpose he engaged the most distinguished prima donnas of his day to represent the key figures in his operas, often showing up in person to "steal" them from other companies during his travels to Germany and Italy. The earliest were Margarita Durastanti (who performed in Rinaldo, among other operas) and Anastasia Robinson. But the most turbulent period began with the arrival of Francesca Cuzzoni and her rival Faustina Bordoni, in addition to the castrati Senesino and Farinelli, the most brilliant stars in Händel's firmament. Händel only succeeded in bringing the haughty and temperamental Cuzzoni under control during rehearsals for Ottone in 1723 when he grasped her around the waist and threatened to fling her out of the window. Her debut was a gigantic success. The musicologist Charles Burney described her as follows : ‘Her shake was perfect, her high notes unrivalled in clearness and sweetness, and her intonation so just that she seemed incapable of singing out of tune.' And a listener exclaimed: ‘Damn the woman, she has a nest of nightingales in her belly.'
But Händel's prima donnas kept London abuzz with their public rivalries, love affairs, and scandals. The battle between Cuzzoni and Bordoni was not confined to their efforts to gain the lion's share of audience acclaim: the two had vicious shouting matches in Italian on stage which ultimately degenerated into scratching, biting, hair-pulling, and tearing each other's costumes to pieces. It was in 1727 that one of their shared performances ended in one of the greatest scandals of operatic history. The English Royal family and countless other great personages witnessed the spectacle. Down came the curtain, and that was the end of that year's opera season. Händel, unlike his prima donnas, was a lifelong bachelor who carefully kept his social and private lives separate; nevertheless he was alternatively branded a lady-killer, a womanizer, asexual, and celibate. He was left to pick up the pieces.
Händel mastered the art of the opera during his ‘grand tour' through Italy. Italy was not only opera's native land, but also the Mecca of the oratorio, the sonata, and the concerto. The young composer had traveled there from Hamburg in 1706, and he remained for some five years, becoming wildly popular as a virtuoso harpsichordist and organist. He met Corelli, Caldara, and Alessandro Scarlatti; he engaged in a competition with Alessandro's son, Domenico, on the harpsichord. Händel was idolized by artistically inclined cardinals and noble patrons in Rome and Naples, all of whom commissioned operas, cantatas, oratorios, concerti, and sonatas from him. Italy was where he experimented as he wrote his Italian cantatas, virtual operas in miniature form. Four of them are recorded on this CD.
The oboe was an instrument especially beloved by Händel. It is the unifying element in the anthology of arias and cantatas recorded here. Even before he departed for Italy, in 1704, Händel composed a Concerto in g minor for this pastoral wind instrument; it is one of his earliest surviving instrumental compositions. Here we can listen to the singing reed in varying settings, both musical and emotional: high, low, melodious, mournful, but also furious and virtuosic. Händel presents the player with every opportunity. Particularly enchanting are the operatic moments when the oboe and the soprano voice twine intimately around each other, as they do in "Dolce riposo", from Teseo, in which the lovesick Medea is comforted by melancholy oboe passages. It is yet another glorious example of Händel's loving musical empathy.