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Brilliant Classics

George Friderich HANDEL (1685-1750)
Complete Chamber Music

CD 1 Flute Sonatas
CD 2 Violin and Oboe Sonatas
CD 3 Trio Sonatas Op.2
CD 4 Trio Sonatas Op.5
CD 5 Trio Sonatas for two violins and basso continuo
CD 6 Recorder Sonatas
L’Ecole d’Orphée
Recorded in 1991 venue not given
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92192 [6CDs: 74.22+57.42+60.21+70.18+65.41+66.52]


This set of six CDs was recorded by ASV back in the early 1990s. It is an excellent idea to ‘club’ them together like this and partner them with a useful accompanying essay. This was written by Dr. David Doughty and it says a great deal about the composer’s life but lacks much detail about these particular works which are described in relation to their context rather than treated as separate works.

Something should be said at the outset as to what Handel was expecting when he published these works and how he might have expected to hear them.

That the trio sonata grew out of the 17th Century suite most listeners know. To be precise it also evolved from the ‘Sonata da chiesa’ (or church sonata), examples of which are best illustrated by Corelli. It also derives from the ‘Sonata da Camera’ (or chamber sonata). In the former pieces, dances were clearly alluded to but not named, in the latter as in the Op. 5, some like the Allemande and the Gavotte, most certainly are. Movements with purely Italian names tend to be short pieces which are divided into even shorter sections carrying the nomenclature ‘Allegro’ or ‘Adagio’ etc.

It is significant part of Handel’s training and the start of his professional life took place in Italy. Although Corelli was only to survive until 1713 Handel must have at least heard him perform if not actually met him. Later in life he knew Geminiani and Locatelli, meeting them during their visits to London. The Trio Sonatas Op. 2 and Op. 5 show distinct Corellian influence extending even as far as melodic shapes and rhythms. For example the G minor Sonata Op. 2 no. 5 will surely remind listeners of the opening of Corelli’s E minor Sonata Op. 2 no. 4.

In these Trio Sonatas the gamba continuo is freed of its subservience to the left-hand part of the harpsichord. It is allowed a free rein distinctly bringing out the three parts: bass, violin (or as an alternative and as performed here, recorder) and keyboard. The writing for all the instruments is quite individual. What you hear however in the sonatas, say the ones for violin, or for oboe (an instrument that was a particular favourite of Handel’s) on CD2, is that the cello or gamba continuo simply doubles the bass of the harpsichord. This is for the simple reason that the bass was the weakest part of the instrument and therefore needed strengthening.

Handel used figured bass around which the harpsichord moves improvising its right-hand part. It’s quite possible that the harpsichord could be removed altogether leaving just the violin on the melody and the gamba on the bass line, as in the performance of the Violin Sonata in G minor on CD2. The listener might be forgiven however for feeling that the texture becomes rather thin.

The Trio Sonatas for two violins and gamba on disc 5 are more in the style of concertos, being in three, four or five movements alternating fast-slow-fast sections and mostly containing music requiring a more demanding technical ability. Vivaldi is certainly brought to mind here as in the first movement of the Sinfonia in Bb which opens the disc.

Typically Handel uses material found elsewhere. The F major Concerto’s outer movements are reused in the Organ Concerto known as ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’. Some of the slow movements turn up as opera arias. And it’s not easy to say which came first; dating these sonatas is difficult. Although not published until the late 1720s and 1730s some may well have been composed up to thirty years earlier. Indeed Handel’s earliest music, written when he was a teenager, may be found in the Op. 2 Trio Sonatas. This set may also include spurious works, which, as the originals are lost, cannot be proven either way. The Opus numbers are confusing and one should not particularly look for compositional development across the numbering sequence.

One of my favourite moments in the set was hearing Philip Pickett play the recorder sonatas. Perhaps this is because they are much better known than the Trio Sonatas. Confusingly, they are often played as flute sonatas (and have been set by the Associated Board for various grade exams) but not intended as such; there is a separate CD of flute sonatas played by Stephen Preston. Both Pickett and Preston are beautifully recorded and the phrasing of both players and their clean finger-work allow the music to speak without interference. Enhancing all of this is the continuo playing which modestly enables the soloist to stand apart but which also adds a necessary expressive balance.

For me the performances are always a very great joy, full of energy when necessary, and pathos in the slow movements. They are recorded perfectly with excellent balance.

It is a pity that the tracking on these discs is rather mean. Each sonata is given a track of its own. It would have been much better to have tracked each movement especially in the three movement works. I know that some CDs would have had over twenty tracks but surely it would have been a helpful gesture.

I have found the set to be most enjoyable throughout with no really weak or ‘naff’ sonatas or movements. I recommend this set to you with every confidence.

Gary Higginson

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