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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Eight Great Suites for Solo Harpsichord HWV426–433 (1720):
Suite No. 1 in A, HWV 426 [11:26]
Suite No. 2 in F, HWV 427 [8:54]
Suite No. 3 in d minor, HWV428 [23:16]*
Suite No. 4 in e minor, HWV 429 [12:46]
Suite No. 5 in E, HWV 430 [13:44]
Suite No. 6 in f# minor, HWV 431[9:02]
Suite No. 7 in g minor, HWV 432 [19:49]
Suite No. 8 in f minor, HWV 433 [12:05]
Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
rec. Handel House, London, 4-6 and 9 November 2008. DDD.
Recorded in collaboration with BBC Radio 3 and Handel House Museum in celebration of Handel’s 250th Anniversary.
* Not 3:16 as stated on rear insert.
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD 095-2 [57:42 + 55:00]

CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS
Sound Samples & Downloads

Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Suites for harpsichord: Volume 1
Suite in d minor, HWV428 [24:52]**
Suite in A, HWV454 [14:35]
Suite in e minor, HWV438 [8:07]
Suite in C, HWV443 [27:12]
Suite in g minor, HWV439 [17:15]
Suite in G, HWV441 [21:49]
Suite in e minor, HWV429 [16:30]
Suite in E, HWV430 [14:50]
Gilbert Rowland (harpsichord)
rec. Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Herts, England, 5-8 July 2010. DDD
** Not 42:52 as stated on rear insert.
DIVINE ART DDA21219 [74:54 + 71:34]
Experience Classicsonline

Since I included a shorter version of this review in my May 2011/1 Download Roundup, I’ve been practising some of these Suites myself, with so little success that my admiration for both recordings has increased considerably. If, as seems the case, Handel intended these works as practice material for students, he clearly expected a great deal more than my fingers are currently able to produce on returning to the keyboard after a very long interval.

Though these two sets don’t cover exactly the same material, since Rowland’s programme includes only three of the ‘Great’ Suites from ‘Set 1’ HWV428, 429 and 430 – presumably, the others will appear in subsequent volumes – there is enough common ground for me to consider them together. They do, however, share some sloppy booklet and insert proof-reading which makes HWV428 three minutes long from Cummings and an equally unlikely 43 minutes from Rowland. I’ve given the correct, much closer, figures above.

I’ve listened to some other harpsichord recordings of these suites but left out consideration of alternative recordings on the modern piano, since my clear preference is for Handel on the harpsichord, despite the merits of the playing of the likes of Gavrilov and Richter on EMI Gemini.

I can’t pretend that the new CDs are the most exciting product of the Handel anniversary year and its aftermath, but each represents a welcome addition to the catalogue. Apart from the chief competitor, Paul Nicholson on a 2-for-1 Hyperion Dyad reissue of HWV426-433 plus eight fugues (CDD22045 – CD or download from Hyperion in mp3 and lossless), and the few other recordings listed below, these Suites are not over-represented in the catalogue. Unfortunately for his new rivals, however, Nicholson’s playing is mostly of very high quality and the Hyperion price highly attractive, so I’ve taken this as my benchmark. It offers stiff competition for the new releases, though the Divine Art set is also offered at a keen price.

John France regarded the Hyperion set as his benchmark, though he also thought that Ottavio Dantone’s performances on Arts 47698-2 and 47699-2, which also contain several extra pieces, compared favourably – see review. Mark Sealey thought that Sophie Yates’ recording on Chandos had much to recommend it (Chandos CHAN0644, 0669 and 0688), though preferring the Arkiv CDR reissue of Trevor Pinnock’s recording of some of the Suites (410 656-2 – see review). That Arkiv CD offers rather short value, though the price, currently $14.99, partially redresses the balance of value, especially if you download from – here – in mp3 (£7.99) or flac (£9.99).

In the main Laurence Cummings is slower than the opposition, but some of his tempi are decidedly fast: the presto finale of Suite No.3, HWV428, more familiar from the organ concertos – Handel’s typical re-use of his own material – is a case in point. He dashes this off in 4:35, at which speed it sounds ever so slightly a scramble, as against Nicholson’s more sedate 5:04 and Rowland’s slightly too deliberate 5:22. Martin Souter (The Gift of Music CCLCD009, Suites 1-5) is even faster at 4:28, yet contrives to sound deliberate rather than rushed. Isolde Ahlgrimm (Corona Classic Collection 001952CCC, Suites 1-4 and Chaconne in G) and Alan Cuckston (Naxos 8.550415, Suites 1-5; 8.550416, Suites 6-8 and other works) cut the repeat and shorten the movement to 3:00 and 2:38 respectively, thereby almost editing it out of existence, which is a shame because Ahlgrimm, one of the pioneers of modern harpsichord playing, gives a very interesting personal interpretation.

We’ve already seen that Rowland is a little more deliberate than Cummings in the finale of HWV428 and that’s true in most of the movements of that work. On the few occasions where Rowland is slightly faster, the difference is hardly perceptible in practice, but where he is slower, it’s often by quite a margin:

Air and Doubles

I noted Rowland’s slightly deliberate manner even before I compared the timings, especially in the Allemande. Views of the right tempo for this movement do seem to vary considerably, however, and Rowland is not the slowest here, with Nicholson taking 4:46 and Yates only slightly faster at 4:25. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with any of the three versions of this movement. Nevertheless, I prefer Cummings’ view of this movement to those of Rowland and Nicholson.

As a matter of pure interest, though I said that I wouldn’t compare piano versions, Andrei Gavrilov prunes and demolishes the Allemande from this Suite in 2:33 (EMI Gemini 5865402).

Rowland’s version of HWV429 takes 16:30 overall against Cummings’ 13:46 and Nicholson’s 16:00: this time it’s the fourth movement Sarabande that accounts for most of the difference, with honours about even in the other sections. A sarabande is a slow and stately dance, so there’s a good case to be made for Rowland’s decision to take 4:50 – Nicholson is slower still at 5:06 – almost half as long again as Cummings (3:21), yet ultimately I come down on Cummings’ side. Perhaps Yates, who falls between the two tempi, has it right here.

For a final example, I compared the versions of the famous ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’, the final Air and Variations from HWV430. Here, for once, Rowland is slightly faster than Cummings – 4:25 against 4:47 – and both are in line with the view which most performers take for the tempo here: Yates (4:40), Cuckston (4:39) and Nicholson (4:35) are in near-complete agreement in splitting the difference between the two new recordings almost exactly.

More to the point, I found here none of the over-deliberation in Rowland’s performance that I noted elsewhere – it’s a free-wheeling account. On the other hand, if you want this movement played in a lighter, more pastoral style on a softer-voiced instrument, evoking, as it were, the village blacksmith whose name has come to be attached to this piece, especially when it’s played on its own, the lighter touch and more distant recording of Cummings on Somm will be your preferred choice. I thought both accounts preferable to the slower tempo adopted by Blandine Verlet in a recording of the Eight ‘Great’ Suites for Auvidis Astrée (E8655) – on paper, she seems much faster by dint of omitting some repeats.

It’s swings and roundabouts, then, in terms of performance from Laurence Cummings, Gilbert Rowland and Paul Nicholson. That all three are Handelians through and through is never in doubt: Laurence Cummings in particular is the director of the London Handel Festival and has participated in a number of excellent recordings of the composer for Somm, as conductor (Joshua, SOMMCD240-2; Esther, SOMMCD238-9) and as a member of the London Handel Players (Flute Concerto, etc., SOMMCD055; Violin Sonatas, SOMMCD068; Trio Sonatas, Op.5, SOMMCD044). You’ll find our ‘Seen and Heard’ reviewers using terms such as ‘exemplary’ about his concert performances.

Johan van Veen was disparaging about Rowland’s performances on Volume 10 of the Naxos series of the keyboard works of Soler for their ‘relentless hammering ... with very little differentiation and variation’ – see review. He may well have the same reaction to this Handel recording, since Cummings’ playing is softer-voiced throughout. Handel’s keyboard works are of a higher order than Soler’s and I think JV was partly put off by his dislike of the music. In any event, I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Cookson’s review of Volume 9: ‘a really fine performance from Gilbert Rowland who was an inspired choice’ – see review. Just bear in mind that what I perceive as a more forthright style is another well-informed listener’s relentless hammering.

As for Nicholson’s Handelian credentials, Peter J Lawson recommended another Hyperion 2-for-1 set on which he plays the Organ Concertos, Op.4 and Op.7 (CDD22052). His conclusion that ‘Nicholson’s playing though admirably polished communicates more of a studied respect for Handel than the flamboyance one imagines distinguished Handel’s own playing’ would serve to describe his playing of the Suites, except that I’m more than happy with the slight understatement of his playing here.

With three such distinguished recordings, unless and until you begin to make direct comparisons, I imagine that most could be happy with any one of these three sets. That was my initial feeling before doing the ‘building a library’ job and it remains the case.

With two CDs for the price of one, the Hyperion is the least expensive, especially as a download from, where the lossless version comes at the same price as the mp3, £7.99, with the booklet as part of the deal. That’s even less expensive than the two Naxos CDs which contain the Cuckston recordings; both offer between them more than just the Eight ‘Great’ Suites.

The difference between the Somm and Divine Art recordings and instruments which I noted in the finale of HWV430 is true throughout, with Rowland more forward, louder-voiced and at a higher volume that Cummings, though never unduly so. The closeness of the Divine Art recording, however, is likely to become more tiring than the Somm after a while. Though I think you’re hardly likely to want to play both CDs in one go, you may well find the Cummings recording easier to live with in that respect.

The Somm notes are brief but generally to the point, though nowhere will you find a reference to that well-known nickname for the finale of HWV430. The Divine Art notes are a little fuller and Hyperion offer a booklet of their usual high quality – available as a pdf document from their website and worth reading whether you buy the set or not.

From Somm, two CDs, each playing for less than an hour, seem poor value by today’s standards, even though the set is on sale for less than full price, when Hyperion offer several extra works on Paul Nicholson’s recording for the price of one CD. Divine Art give you more music for your money; they also offer their two-CD sets for less than premium price, and spread their net more widely than just the works of Set 1. I’d love to leave it at that, say that all three recordings have their virtues, and sit on the fence. I know, however, that you want me to plump, so, for overall satisfaction with tempo and performance, the quality of the booklet, and availability at a very reasonable price, it has to be Paul Nicholson on Hyperion.

You may also wish to be aware of an inexpensive download-only reissue of an important historic recording of four of these suites and what I wrote about it in my July 2011/1 Download Roundup:

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1-4, HWV426-429 Thurston Dart (harpsichord) – rec. 1959. ADD/mono
BEULAH EXTRA 18-21BX69 [11:04 + 11:46 + 8:19 + 19:38] – from Beulah (mp3)
Dart’s harpsichord, a Thomas Goff from 1952, is larger and louder than on either of [the Cummings or Rowlands] recordings, 16' stop and all, and Dart’s manner is more forthright, but I found it instructive, as always with Thurston Dart, to see how far current thinking has come since his time and how much he himself did to build the framework of those modern thoughts. The recording is a little up-front and dry but perfectly acceptable in this transfer – better than I recall from the ‘electronic stereo’ transfer from the 1970s, though I miss the attractive covers of those £0.99 Oiseau Lyre LPs.

I shall certainly be returning to Thurston Dart alongside the two very satisfying new sets of the Handel Keyboard Suites from Cummings and Rowland, but Nicholson on Hyperion’s 2-for-1 alternative will almost certainly claim my listening attention more than any other.

Brian Wilson





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