Handel was renowned in his lifetime as a virtuoso organist,
his art was based on improvisation. He left no developed oeuvre
of keyboard pieces which would give us an idea of his full capabilities
as an organist. His organ concertos are actually theatre pieces,
developed by Handel to support his oratorio performances. Handel
brought in an organ to act as continuo in the choruses and developed
the idea of an organ concerto as a way of adding extra novelty.
At the oratorios, the audience could not rely on novelty and
virtuoso display from the latest Italian singers so Handelís
performances on the organ were a sort of substitute.
of the concertos probably started out life with a pretty sketchy
organ part, leaving Handel to invent at will and simply control
the orchestra with a nod of the head or an extended trill on
the organ. 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 Op. 3 Concerti Grossi though he
did not actually prepare them for publication. Then in 1738
Walsh published the Op. 4 organ concerti that 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. More importantly, they are from Handelís
attempted to publish a second set of concertos in 1740 but Handel
was too busy to work on them and only managed to deliver two
concertos. Walsh filled the set out with arrangements for organ
of Handelís concerti grossi.
Op. 7 concertos were not published until 1761 and were assembled
by his assistant John Christopher Smith junior. It is here that
the organistís ingenuity is taxed as Smith and Walsh made no
attempt to try and recreate what Handel would have played, so
that the Op. 7 concertos are littered with ad libitum
Op. 4 and the Op. 7 concertos had a many and varied origin.
Most were premiered at one of the oratorio concerts, but most
were assembled from previous movements. This was not unusual
in Handelís oeuvre; he spent his entire working life re-using
his own - and other peopleís - works in his art.
set from Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
has become a touch-stone in the performance of Handel organ
concerti. In fact, Brilliantís recent edition, with Christian
Schmitt as organ soloist, uses the new Barenreiter Edition which
incorporates Ton Koopmanís suggestions for the ad libitum
these discs Koopman does something that few contemporary
organists could probably manage: he improvises the movements
in correct period style. The results are entirely convincing
and introduce a sense of virtuosity and bravura lacking from
some other more recent sets such as the one from Brilliant.
organs were not large by our standard, though Op. 7 no. 1 does
call for pedals. It must be borne in mind that his organ had
to be transported into the theatre. This gives rise to a problem
for performers because, 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. Koopman has taken
a pragmatic view of the choice of organ and picked one from
a later period that seems to fit the style of organ which Handel
himself described. The results, as presented here, are entirely
of an historic organ means, of course, that we get moments of
clatter during some passages but this is not overly intrusive.
Use of a church organ means that these pieces are recorded in
a church acoustic, but the recording is not overly resonant
and no detail is lost.
to these recordings after a gap, I found myself noticing things
I had taken for granted before. Most noticeably the speeds seem
rather on the steady side; perhaps this is the price we pay
for Koopmanís virtuosity on the keyboard.
is also the issue of the continuo instrument. Koopman
plays the orchestral continuo on the organ, creating a homogeneous
sound which can be appealing. This gives the concerti the feel
of a concerto grosso rather than the 19th century
combative display concerto. Other discs that I have listened
to provide a separate harpsichord continuo. We are not sure
exactly what Handel did; some commentators postulate that in
ĎSaulí he acquired a keyboard which enabled him to control both
harpsichord and organ. Be that as it may, the sound-world created
by using a harpsichord does make a difference. It increases
the contrast in timbres between the solo organ and the orchestral
ritornelli. Whether you like it or not is down to personal taste.
performance of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra is impeccable.
Their crisp articulation and rhythmic bounce match Koopmanís
playing style. I just wish that time and space could have been
found to have included the other stray organ concertos so that
this set was well and truly complete.
double remains is a major milestone in the performance of Handelís
organ concertos and it is one to which I have returned regularly
since it was first issued. Many people will have the set already.
When listening to more recent sets I have often expressed the
opinion that I prefer to return to Ton Koopman so I welcome
the re-issue of this set at an affordable price.