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
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
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.