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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


Brilliant Classics

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 1 in G minor
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 2 in B flat major
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 3 in G minor
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 4 in F major
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 5 in F major
Organ Concerto Opus 4 No. 6 in B flat minor
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 1 in B flat major
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 2 in A major
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 3 in B flat major
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 4 in D minor
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 5 in G minor
Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 6 in B flat major
Organ Concerto in F Major ‘Cuckoo and Nightingale’
Ivan Sokol (organ)
Slovak Chamber Orchestra/Bohdan Warchal
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-32/34 [3CDs: 76.24+55.16+58.44]


Handel was renowned during his lifetime as a virtuoso organist and keyboard player. Unfortunately for us, his art was heavily based on improvisation so that he left very few highly developed keyboard pieces, he left no harpsichord or organ oeuvre in the way that Bach did.

The organ concerto form was developed by Handel as an adjunct to the oratorio. He did not generally use organ continuo in the operas, but for the oratorios he tended to use an organ to support the choruses. The inserting of organ concertos in between the acts of the oratorio was a way of providing extra novelties for the audience. At the oratorios, the audience could not rely on novelty and virtuoso display from the latest Italian singers so Handel’s performances on the organ were a sort of substitute.

Luckily for us, from the 1730s, Handel started to develop more of an interest in publishing instrumental music as a way of disseminating his music. He helped John Walsh with the publication of the Opus 3 Concerti Grossi though he did not actually prepare them for publication. Then in 1738 Walsh published the Opus 4 organ concerti which Handel had prepared for publication. The organ parts are probably only the merest simulacrum of what he would have performed live but they are the nearest thing we have.

The concertos were not all written specially for the occasion. Handel was an expert at recycling material from other sources. The first concerto in the set was first performed in ‘Alexander’s Feast’ in 1736 and the second was first performed in ‘Esther’ in 1735. Its 1st movement derives from the motet ‘Silete Venti’ and the 2nd from the Trio Sonata Op 2. Concerto no. 3 was first performed during ‘Esther’ in 1735 and is based on Trio Sonata Op. 2 no. 5. The fourth concerto was first performed during ‘Athalia’ in 1735 and the 1st movement is based on discarded chorus from ‘Alcina’. Concerto no. 5 was first performed during ‘Deborah’ in 1735 and was adapted from the recorder sonata Op.1 no. 11. The 6th concerto was originally written as the Harp concerto included in ‘Alexander’s Feast’ performed in 1736. It was only later adapted for organ.

The Opus 7 concertos were not published until 1761 and were assembled by his assistant John Christopher Smith junior. In these cases the organist must exercise far more ingenuity in supplying what Handel has not written down. Like the Opus 4 concerti, these had a many and varied origin. Concerto no. 1 was first performed during ‘L’Allegro’ in 1740 and its 1st movement includes an independent pedal part. The 2nd concerto was first performed during ‘Samson’ in 1743 and the last movement was based on a rejected overture for ‘Samson’. Concerto no. 3 was first performed in 1751 during ‘Alexander’s Feast’ and was Handel’s last orchestral work. The 4th concerto may have been performed during the ‘Occasional Oratorio’ in 1746 but it may have been assembled by Smith after Handel’s death. The 5th concerto was first performed in 1750 during ‘Theodora’ and the 6th was assembled by Smith.

Despite the presence of pedals in the Opus 7 no. 1, Handel’s organs were not large in our terms. After all they had to be transported into the theatre; these concertos were not written for church performance. This gives rise to a problem for performers as, if the organist is to play on an instrument similar to one Handel might have known, then they must be accompanied by similar scale orchestral forces.

Unfortunately, on this disc which enterprisingly includes all the Opus 4 and Opus 7 concerti along with the ‘Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ concerto, the forces are mismatched. Ivan Sokol plays a chamber-sized organ. At least it sounds like that, but there are no details given on the disc. His playing is lively and imaginative and I would be relatively happy with it. Unfortunately the Slovak Chamber Orchestra’s playing is in a different style and on a different scale. Over three CDs this begins to annoy and I regret that I cannot really raise much enthusiasm for this disc. DG have issued Simon Preston’s recordings of these works with the English Concert on a 3 CD set at mid-price. So you might be well worth trying to acquire this set instead.

Robert Hugill

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