Handel’s Organ Concertos were written for performance by the composer as interludes in his Oratorios and other works. His abilities as an improviser were well known and were an integral part of these works. Any purchaser of the editions published by John Walsh would soon have realised this when they saw the words ad libitum in the solo part applying both to the solo parts within movements otherwise fully written out and to whole movements which the organ soloist would be expected to provide without any help from the composer. In other words the performer’s creative contribution to these Concertos was and should be considerable. Fortunately this is now the norm with the days of performance on a solo organ without orchestra in a heavy “churchy” style having now passed. There are many admirable recordings on instruments similar to those Handel would have known and played in a way he would have recognized. It is from such recordings that any present day Handelian would be best advised to get to know the Concertos.
However having done that and with an approximation of the likely original sounds and notes in their memory the listener is ready, and I hope willing, to sample the very varied sounds and approaches that Ragna Schirmer adopts here. The first disc is the least controversial, with the soloist simply using a fortepiano instead of an organ. Although you might expect that the change from an instrument that sustains tone to one that is essentially percussive might have a drastic effect on the character of the music that is not the case. This is mainly due to the very stylish playing of both soloist and orchestra, who give the music that sense of purpose and clear forward movement essential to Handel’s music. Their phrasing is idiomatic but generous rather than finicky, and their ability to hold the listener, or at least this listener, in the flow of the music is estimable. I find it hard to imagine any Handel enthusiast, even one who reckoned themselves primarily as an organ fancier, failing to respond to playing like this.
The second disc moves the sound world further away from that Handel might have expected. The solo instrument is now a Steinway D grand piano, with a smallish band of modern strings and woodwind. Again, however, the sense of the music’s progress with which the performances are imbued is irresistible. More resistible may be the addition of a Concertino for piano and strings by Guillaume Connesson commissioned for the soloist and linked to the Handel Concertos. It does the work no favours to hear it immediately after the latter, as its comparative dryness and lack of real momentum (although it does certainly have many notes) are highlighted. I found I enjoyed it much more out of the Handelian context and under those circumstances am glad to have had the chance to hear it.
The final disc is by some way that which deviates most from the sounds and instrumentation of Handel’s originals. In a bold acknowledgement of the importance of improvisation and novel sounds in these Concertos, Ragna Schirmer commissioned Stefan Maizew to make arrangements of the remaining four Concertos for a jazz group, a small group of string players and a soloist at last on an organ – but a Hammond organ, as far removed from the composer’s original instrument as one might go. The results are clearly based on Handel’s Concertos but tend to go off in wholly unexpected and imaginative directions. The first Concerto on the disc – Op 4 No 6 – is that originally intended for harp. Its delicate and transparent character is changed, often out of all recognition, but the playing has great panache and good humour. I have no problem in enjoying both it and Handel’s original version(s).
This is a remarkable set of recordings which act as a further tribute to the composer’s wonderfully fertile imagination and to the ability of these Concertos to inspire a very wide range of responses from performers. This is not a set that anyone should think of purchasing as the sole representation of these works in their collection, but it is a fascinating and immensely enjoyable addition to a more mainstream version. Ragna Schirmer and her various collaborators have produced a real treat for anyone wanting to explore the further potential of this music. Berlin Classics have presented it admirably, with copious notes and photos in a handy wallet. All in all, a real treat for any open minded Handelian.
Concerto in F major Op 4 No 5 HWV293 [9:06]
Concerto in G minor Op 4 No 3 HWV291 [10:43]
Concerto in G minor Op 4 No 1 HWV289 [16:24]
Concerto in A major HWV296a [18:07]
Concerto in F major Op 4 No 4 HWV292 [15:15]
Concerto in Bb major Op 4 No 2 HWV290 [10:09]
Ragna Schirmer (fortepiano)
Händel Festspiel Orchester Halle
rec. 16-17 October & 1-3 December 2012 Volkspark Halle Festsaal
Concerto in Bb major Op 7 No 1 HWV306 [20:25]
Concerto in F major HWV295 [13:50]
Concerto in Bb major Op 7 No 3 HWV308 [12:16]
Concerto in A major Op 7 No 2 HWV307 [14:27]
Guillaume Connesson Concertino for piano [19:02]
Ragna Schirmer (Steinway D piano)
rec. 6-8 January & 25-29 May 2013 in Freylinghausensaal der Frankeschen Stiftungen Halle
Concerto in Bb major Op 4 No 6 HWV293 [14:38]
Concerto in G minor Op 7 No 5 HWV310 [22:40]
Concerto in D minor Op 7 No 4 HWV309 [13:41]
Concerto in Bb major Op 7 No 6 HWV311 [7:41]
Ragna Schirmer (Hammond B3 organ); Stefan Malzew (arrangements, direction, vibes & piano); Gérard Presencer (trumpet & flugelhorn); Peter Weninger (soprano & tenor sax); Geoffroy de Masure (trombone & bass trombone); Winfried Holzenkamp (double-bass); Matthias Daneck (drums & percussion):
rec. 15-17 July 2013 in Neues Theater Halle