The six Trio Sonatas, HWV380-385, may be Handel’s
earliest works. The only authority for the attribution, however,
is the word of Carl Frierich Weidemann, a German flautist in
Handel’s orchestra, as reported by Dr Burney. Handel is supposed
to have said of these pieces that he “used to write like the
devil in those days ... for the oboe”, but recent scholarly
opinion has tended to move away from the attribution. The sonatas
hardly seem likely to have been written at the age of ten or
eleven, as Chrysander believed; if they are Handelian, they
are probably his 18-year-old works. As far as I am aware, no-one
has proposed an alternative identification, though the fierce
competition for the post which Bach eventually received at Leipzig
serves as a reminder of the high quality of musicianship in
North Germany at the time.
Authentic or not, the music the music would not
shame a fully-mature composer; it is well worth hearing, especially
when it is played as well as it is here. That this recording,
still the only version in the catalogue, has been reissued so
soon after its first release presumably indicates that it has
not sold well in full-price format. If that is the case, I
hope that its release at budget price (£5 to £6 in the UK) will guarantee that there
will be no future neglect.
There may be nothing that marks the music as convincingly
Handelian, especially in its present form, but the same could
be said of some of the music of the teenage Mendelssohn or even
of early Mozart. Though there are signs of the composer-to-come
in Beethoven’s early music, much of it sounds like Haydn-cum-Mozart
and Sibelius’s early symphonies reveal their debt to Tchaikovsky.
Only in mythology and poetry does a mature Athene spring from
the mind of Zeus or Death start up fully formed from the union
of Satan and Sin, as Milton has it in Paradise
Lost. In any case, as the notes in the booklet indicate,
stylistic evidence is always likely to remain inconclusive.
That the music cannot have originally been intended
for two oboes is clear: the second part sometimes lies too
low for the 18th-Century oboe and the indications
of double-stopping clearly indicate the violin. Handel is,
of course, notorious for having recycled his own material; this
may be an example where such practice was intended but the music
set aside and the recycling never completed.
The g-minor sonata, Op.2/8, HWV393, one of the
‘Dresden’ Sonatas, which rounds
off the recording, finds us on more solid ground as regards
its Handelian credentials. The attribution of even this more
mature piece, however, is not secure. What is clear is that
it, like all the other music here, is very attractive. Usually
performed by two violins, its oboe and violin format here sounds
equally fine. All eight sonatas are in the 4-movement sonata
da chiesa form, slow-fast-slow-fast, though the pattern
is obscured in the case of numbers 1 and 5, where the second
slow section is incorporated into the second movement.
As Lady Bracknell might have said, the authorship
is immaterial. Trying to listen to the music as if it were
by some unknown contemporary of Handel, the overall effect was
of enjoyable, but not trivial music, performed by players who
were enjoying it. The order in which the sonatas are played
is not as whimsical as may at first appear; opening the programme
with No.5 gives the listener a clear idea of the quality of
the music, performances and recording. In particular, the decision
to end the disc with Op.2/8 was well made, since its Andante
opening heralds the most profound – but not solemn – work here.
All the music is performed in stylish and attractive
fashion by Convivium, with oboe and violin engaging in some
lively give-and-take and the two continuo players offering excellent
support. Both Anthony Robson and Elizabeth Wallfisch shine
brightly. If the oboe sometimes seems to have the lion’s share,
that is surely consistent with the spirit of the music rather
than a reflection on the performers or the recording balance.
One review of the original issue recommended boosting the left
channel to bring out the violin part, a procedure which I did
not find at all necessary.
With recording and acoustic as near to ideal as
may be, close but not too close and with the instruments well
separated by just the right amount, there is nothing to bar
one’s enjoyment of this highly recommendable collection. If
this seems a rather short review, that is because I really have
nothing of importance to criticise.
My only possible complaint is that Hyperion appear
recently to have abandoned their practice of stating the venue
as well as the date of the recording. Otherwise the documentation,
with excellent notes by Richard Wigmore, is far superior to
that normally provided with budget-price recordings. Futile
as it is to repeat the point, if Hyperion can provide informative
documentation at this price-level, why cannot the others? The
cover etching of a Rhineland pastoral scene is ideal.
If a recording of the remaining Op.2 Sonatas interests
you, (avoiding having to duplicate No.8) see the review
of Nos.1-6, performed by Sonnerie on Avie AV0033, a MusicWeb
Recording of the Month: strongly recommended as an “excellent
performance of some of Handel’s greatest chamber music.” For
a choice between two fine versions of the Op.5 Trio Sonatas,
see the review
of the London Handel Players’ version on Somm CD044.