Last week I sang Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’ at a graveside ceremony for a member of my husband’s family. I shan’t write more about the occasion here, but instead talk about my use of recordings in preparation.
This aria used to be performed quite commonly as a stand-alone piece. Less frequently now, perhaps because with the renewed interest in staging baroque opera there are now opportunities to hear it in its original context. Many great singers have recorded it and the results can be heard on YouTube. I studied them in order to get ideas about various interpretative questions: what ornamentation to do? how fast? how to treat the middle section?
One generalisation about changes in performance practice didn’t really stand up; the older performances were not necessarily slower. But they are missing ornamentation. On the other hand not all ornamentation would have been appropriate to the occasion; certainly not the gratuitous top B flats added by the sopranos. Nor could I match the agility of, say, Mark Padmore. I also felt something more self-effacing was required than the more passionate approach to the B section adopted by many.
As to a favourite recording, I shared the honours between two Kathleens, Ferrier and Battle. With Kathleen Battle there was a video of her performing the aria wearing a columnar dress, standing in a replica of Vermeer’s studio and singing as if she really owned the piece. Certainly my pick of the soprano versions.
Kathleen Ferrier was not blessed in her accompanist, who thumped out the left-hand ascending scale at the end of the A section in a well-that’s-got-rid-of-her sort of way. But why is it that great contraltos always sound so sincere, while every phrase a soprano sings is full of artifice? Is it because the lower voice is close to the pitch of a speaking one?