Handel was and is one of the most famous composers of the baroque
era, and the only one whose music was still performed after
his death. In modern times he has had to compete with others,
like Bach and Telemann. But his music still belongs amongst
the most frequently performed. His oratorios have always enjoyed
great popularity, and in recent decades the largest part of
his operatic oeuvre has been rediscovered as well. His orchestral
and chamber music regularly appear on concert programmes and
on disc. There is one part of his oeuvre which is severely underexposed:
his music for keyboard. Whereas the keyboard works of the likes
of Frescobaldi, Froberger, Bach, Haydn and Mozart have been
recorded completely, only once has a complete recording of Handel's
keyboard music been released. From 1979 to 1981 the German harpsichordist
and organist Edgar Krapp recorded his keyboard oeuvre on the
German label Eurodisc. As far as I know these have never been
released on CD.
There are several reasons for this relative neglect. The other
parts of Handel's output are so voluminous and of such splendid
quality that his keyboard music is almost doomed to remain in
the shadow. Another reason is the problems regarding authenticity.
This sounds quite familiar as his chamber music causes many
problems in this regard as well. Handel's popularity is the
main reason. Publishers, in particular John Walsh, were all
too keen to take profit from the large demand for Handel's music
and printed editions which were anything but reliable. This
was the main reason Handel requested a Royal Privilege which
gave him the monopoly of the publication of his own works for
14 years. That was in 1720. The first fruit of this monopoly
was the printing of the eight harpsichord suites from which
three are played here by Cristiano Holtz. Their established
authenticity is the main reason they belong among his most frequently
performed and recorded keyboard works.
Even so, their date of composition remains unclear and this
has kept Handel scholars busy. It is generally assumed that
these suites are compilations of pieces composed during various
stages of Handel's career, most of them probably dating from
before his stay in Italy. In these suites Handel never exactly
adheres to the then common structure of the keyboard suite with
its sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Five
of them begin with a prelude, the others with an allegro, an
adagio and an overture respectively. The number of movements
varies: the Suite No. 8 has five, the Suites 3 and 7 have six.
Handel incorporates elements of the Italian sonata da chiesa,
as in the Suite No. 3 which includes an allegro and ends with
a presto. There are French elements in the Suite No. 3 - the
air - and in the Suite No. 7 which ends with a passacaille.
The German tradition is represented as well: the first two movements
of the Suite No. 8 take the form of a prelude and fugue.
Despite Handel's announcement that he was planning to publish
more keyboard works this never happened. The only other collection
was not authenticated by the composer and published by John
Walsh in 1733. The tracklist gives 1727 instead. I wonder where
they got that date from.
This set contains seven suites and two chaconnes. Like the collection
of 1720 it is a compilation of existing material. But as there
are very few autographs of Handel's keyboard works and the existing
autographs are undated it is impossible to decide exactly when
they were written. From this collection we hear the Suite No.
5 which has only three movements: an allemand, a saraband and
a unusually long jigg. The track-list gives HWV 438/3b which
suggests that a version other than the usual is used. The liner-notes
don't give any information about this. Also included is a Minuet
in g minor which is presented as a movement from the Suite
No. 1 from this set. But according to the compositional catalogue
on Handel.org this minuet
doesn't belong to the suite; it is catalogued there as HWV 434/4.
The programme is rounded off with two of the large number of
independent keyboard pieces which have come down to us under
the name of Handel.
Cristiano Holtz was born in Brazil, began to study the harpsichord
at the age of 12 and later studied with, among others, Gustav
Leonhardt. In 2006 he recorded suites by Johann Mattheson, who
was Handel's colleague at the Hamburg opera before he went to
Italy. His technique is impeccable and he deals impressively
with the sometimes demanding pieces. Here and there he adds
some ornamentation, but on the whole I believe he is too conservative
in this respect. It is an established fact that Handel was a
great virtuoso and was especially famous for his improvisatory
skills. Therefore there can be little doubt that the keyboard
works are merely sketches of what Handel used to play. That
means that the modern performer has to do a lot to give some
idea of how Handel probably played them. And Holtz doesn't do
that. He just takes too little freedom in his interpretation.
There is another issue which bothers me. Holtz plays a replica
of a harpsichord which was built by Christian Zell and Johann
Christoph Fleischer in the first half of the 18th century -
the exact date is not mentioned. It is likely that Handel's
printed keyboard music was mostly played in England. That makes
the choice of a German harpsichord less plausible. This particular
instrument has four stops: 4', two 8' and a 16'. As far as I
know only German harpsichord builders constructed instruments
with a 16' stop. And it is highly questionable whether this
kind of instrument was widely used considering that very few
of them have been preserved. Holtz uses this stop in some of
the most virtuosic pieces. These are quite noisy as it is, and
the use of this stop makes them even noisier, in particular
as Holtz also couples the two manuals. Moreover the noise goes
at the cost of the flexibility and agility, and as a result
these pieces are rather ponderous. That is the case, for instance,
in the closing gigue of the Suite No. 8 in f minor and
the passacaille which ends the Suite No. 7 in g minor.
There are other movements as well where I sometimes find Holtz's
playing a bit awkward and not as fluent as one would wish.
All in all I have mixed feelings about this disc. It is admirable
that Holtz plays pieces by Handel, and that he has included
some lesser-known examples. There is much to enjoy in his playing,
but the brilliance of Handel's music isn't fully explored and
the performances are hampered by the choice of the harpsichord
and the registration of some movements.
Johan van Veen