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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Organ Concertos Op. 4:
No. 1 in G minor HWV 289 (1738) [15.27]; No. 2 in B flat major HWV 290 (1738) [10.26]; No. 3 in G minor HWV 291 (1738) [10.01]; No. 4 in F major HWV 292 (1738) [13.48]; No. 5 in F major HWV 293 (1738) [8.16]; No. 6 in B flat major HWV 294 (1738) [11.35]
Organ Concertos Op. 7: No. 1 in B flat major HWV 306 (1761) [17.26]; No. 2 in A major HWV 307 (1761) [12.09]; No. 3 in B flat major HWV 308 (1761) [14.15]; No. 4 in D minor HWV 309 (1761) [16.13]; No. 5 in G minor HWV 310 (1761) [12.37]; No. 6 in B flat major HWV 311 (1761) [7.50]
Ton Koopman
(organ)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
rec. Sint Bartholomeuskerk, Beek-Ubbergen, Netherlands, 1984
WARNER APEX 2564 62760-2 [72.40 + 78.43]

 

 

Whilst 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.

All 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 own hand.

Walsh 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.

The 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 passages.

The 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.

This 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 passages.

On 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.

Handelís 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 convincing.

Use 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.

Returning 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.

There 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Robert Hugill

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