Although Handel's harpsichord works are not among his most frequently
performed music and most harpsichordists omit them from their
standard repertoire they are available in quite a number of recordings.
In the main it is the eight large suites of 1720 which receive
the attention; the rest of Handel's repertoire for the keyboard
is largely neglected. This probably has partly to do with the
fact that his keyboard oeuvre is rather cluttered, in which respect
it is comparable to his chamber music. The fact that several pieces
which name Handel as the composer are of doubtful authenticity
does not help. In addition some works exist in several versions.
Whoever wants to record Handel's keyboard music while at the same
time trying to avoid the well-trodden paths has quite a lot of
work to do. And that is exactly what the German keyboard player
and musicologist Siegbert Rampe has done.
This disc is remarkable in more than one respect. First, we get several
well-known pieces in early versions. The Chaconne in G (HWV
430) is recorded here for the first time. One will immediately
recognize the 'Air with variations' from the Suite No. 5 in
E from the set of 1720, nicknamed 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'.
This name was given in the 19th century, and the story associated
with it is apocryphal as the early version proves which Handel
wrote during his time in Hamburg. Also recorded for the first
time is the original version of the Chaconne in G (HWV 435).
Rampe believes this piece could have its origin in a work for
keyboard and orchestra, as in its only source tutti and solo
are clearly distinguished.
In addition Rampe plays some rather curious pieces which don't exactly
belong to the core of Handel's keyboard music. Among them is
the Sonata in G (HWV 579) which has the form of an aria with
solo episodes and ritornellos. The Sonata for a Harpsichord
with Double Keys in G (HWV 579) is specifically written for
a two-manual harpsichord. Like most pieces on this disc it was
written in Hamburg. The Prelude in F (HWV 567) is merely a chordal
framework which has to be worked out by the interpreter. The
Capriccio in g minor (HWV 483) is preserved without a title
and is characterised by Rampe as a "two-part invention".
The two latter pieces belong to the three compositions which were written
in England. The third is the Suite No. 3 in d minor (HWV 428).
It is part of the eight Suites printed in London in 1720. According
to Rampe the other two suites recorded here are of an earlier
date: the Suite No. 2 could have been written in Hamburg, the
Suite No. 7 in Hamburg and in Italy.
For the repertoire alone this is a most interesting disc. But the performance
is also unusual in several ways. First the tuning of the harpsichord:
Rampe states that mean-tone temperament was generally used in
Hamburg until the middle of the 18th century. And that is how
the harpsichord in this recording is tuned. The pitch is lower
than usual: a=408 Hz.
But it is the harpsichord itself which is probably the most intriguing
aspect of this project. It is an instrument with four stops,
divided over two manuals. Most noticeable is the presence of
a 16' stop. When in the 20th century attempts were made to play
the 18th-century harpsichord repertoire on the instrument for
which it was written, by the likes of Wanda Landowska, new instruments
were used which had several stops, including a 16', operated
by pedals. These had very little to do with the original instruments
of the baroque era. After World War II several builders aimed
at building harpsichords which were inspired by the originals
without being copies. Among them were Neupert and Wittmayr,
who built harpsichords which were constructed differently from
the instruments Landowska used. But they still contained a 16'
stop, a practice which was justified by referring to the so-called
'Bach harpsichord' in a museum in Berlin. The connection to
Bach has never been proven, though, and representatives of the
historical performance practice dismissed the inclusion of a
16' as unhistorical. But more recent research has shown that
several 18th-century harpsichords had indeed a 16' stop. This
has resulted in copies of such instruments being built and some
recordings of German keyboard music on such instruments, in
particular by Andreas Staier. Here Siegbert Rampe follows his
example and uses the 16' stop regularly in his performances
of Handel's keyboard works.
He plays Handel's music with great technical assurance and is musically
persuasive. His interpretation is differentiated in that he
doesn't use the 16' stop all the time. But when he does use
it the sound is pretty heavy, and some time is needed to get
used to it. I also felt sometimes that the use of the 16' stop
made the playing of the fast passages a bit awkward and less
flexible than when only 8' stops are used. On the other hand
the full and almost orchestral sound is quite impressive and
lends something monumental to these keyboard works.
This disc can be commended to anyone who is interested in the keyboard
music of the 18th century and its interpretation. I don't dare
to say that this is the way how this music should be played. There
are some questions to be answered, like the acceptance and diffusion
of this kind of harpsichord in the 18th century. But, in addition
to the captivating repertoire and performance, I rate this disc
very highly as an eloquent contribution to the debate on how to
perform baroque keyboard music.
Johan van Veen