Georg Friederich HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Eight Great Suites HWV426–433 (1720)
Suite No. 2 in F major, HWV 427 [9:27]
Suite No. 8 in F minor, HWV 433 [11:38]
Suite No. 4 in E minor, HWV 429 [14:06]
Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430 [11:37]
Suite No. 3 in D minor, HWV428 [22:56]
Suite No. 6 in F sharp minor, HWV 431[8:53]
Suite No. 1 in A major, HWV 426 [10:36]
Suite No. 7 in G minor, HWV 432 [16:04]
Lisa Smirnova (piano)
rec. 2007-2009, Schloss Goldegg, Austria.
ECM NEW SERIES ECM 2213/14 [46:48 + 58:29]
These Acht Grossen Suiten were published in November of 1720 while Handel was living in London. It seems their release had been somewhat forced on the composer, whose reputation and renown fed a wide market of pirated copies of his music. In the preface to the published volume, Handel announced that he had been forced to publish, “because surreptitious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad”. The ‘Royal Privilege’ which he obtained is an early forerunner of the copyright laws which protect authors today. These ‘eight great suites’ were not originally conceived as a set, having been composed over several years. To a certain extent they chronicle the development of Handel’s musical style, though most appear to have been produced during his time in Germany.
Lisa Smirnova’s warm response to these pieces is indicated in a personal note in the booklet. She describes “a universe of timeless beauty … in which joy and bravery of experimentation outdid themselves with incredible energy and passion.” As she also indicates, “there is no shortage of Italian, French and German ‘relishes’” amongst the movements, and “ingenious patchwork” is at once the strength and weakness of these kinds of pieces. Handel’s keyboard Suites suffer in comparison with J.S. Bach’s, but while not every sequence in every dance is equally interesting, there are enough sublime moments to make a complete survey such as this more than justified, and very enjoyable indeed. Smirnova doesn’t try to layer Handel’s directness of expression with too much profundity, though she does draw as much expression as possible from the slower movements. Opening with the Suite No. 2 with its Adagio first movement is a clear statement of intent in this regard, and you will soon find yourself agreeing or not with the measured rhythms of the ornamentation. Smirnova paces her trills to go with the tempo of the movement to a certain extent. This inbuilt variety avoids making the slower gestures too much of a mannerism.
Seriousness of intent does not preclude that sense of joy in the swifter movements, and Smirnova’s final Allegro in this Suite No. 2 is a delight, with an uplifting sense of flight to the counterpoint. She isn’t afraid of drama either, with the fantasy Prelude of the opening to the Suite No. 3 which opens CD 2 shaking things up and providing a Yin to CD 1’s opening Yang, or vice versa, depending on your personal response. Her interpretations lean towards the romantic side of the coin, with reasonable use of the pedal but not too much sense of slush. What I like about Smirnova’s playing is that she maintains a transparency and lightness of touch even when pushing the dynamics. She doesn’t impose artificial grandeur, nor does she make apologies for the expressive potential of the piano, exploring variety of articulation, depth of resonance and natural arcs of dynamic phrasing. Where Handel is disarmingly urbane, such as in the graceful Allemande of the Suite No. 3, then so is Smirnova, introducing some secretiveness to the dynamic as the harmonies follow their labyrinthine course.
Most recordings of these suites are on harpsichord, but there are a few competitors on the piano. Naxos has a decent recording of the first four played by Philip Edward Fischer cat. 8.572197, though to my taste he does have a tendency to overcook rubato between phrases. You may be as intrigued as I was by the prospect of Andrei Gavrilov and Sviatoslav Richter’s recording on EMI’s budget Gemini label, and these 1979 performances still have a great deal to offer despite a slightly boxy piano sound. Murray Perahia’s Suites 2, 3 and 5 along with some Scarlatti are very much worth having from Sony Classics, as is András Schiff’s 1994 Concertgebouw recital on Warner which includes the Suite No. 1 but, as you can perhaps gather, we’re on a path of diminishing returns when it comes to quantity.
ECM’s recording in the resonant acoustic of Schloss Goldegg is gorgeous; though I’m sure there will be those who would prefer their piano sound a little drier. ECM collectors will know pretty much what to expect. I for one appreciate being able to hear the colours of a fine instrument in a resonant acoustic, and without having the feeling I’m listening with my head stuck under the lid of the piano. The ordering of the suites is another well-considered aspect of this release, with an interesting overall harmonic progression, and that one stick-out milestone, the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ finale to the Suite No. 5 placed at the end of CD 1. CD 2 ends with the Passacaille of Suite No. 7, which is a good choice for a conclusion, but one of the only movements in the whole set which I thought was a bit too chunky.
I read somewhere on a Dutch review of this Handel set that Lisa Smirnova’s playing was ‘virtuous’ and ‘lacking in inspiration’. I would beg to differ. She creates her own, highly appealing world in this recording, but also allows the music to speak for itself. I suspect that by inspiration the critic might have meant a greater sense of extremes – heightened abandon in the fast movements perhaps, deeper poetry in the slow. My view is that there is only so much romantic imposition these pieces can take, and the line Smirnova walks is remarkably both personal and true to Handel’s spirit. As a complete modern set on piano I don’t think it has any rivals.
Almost no competition as a complete set.