George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Eight Great Suites
Suite No. 1 in A major HWV426 [11:55]
Suite No. 2 in F major HWV427 [8:29]
Suite No. 3 in D minor HWV428 [22:07]
Suite No. 4 in E minor HWV429 [14:49]
Suite No. 5 in E major HWV430 [11:57]
Suite No. 6 in F sharp minor HWV431 [9:55]
Suite No. 7 in G minor HWV432 [21:16]
Suite No. 8 in F minor HWV433 [12:04]
Suite in E minor HWV438 [7:53]
Chaconne in G major HWV435 [11:53]
Danny Driver (piano)
rec.29-31 January, 22-24 April 2013, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk. DDD
HYPERION CDA68041/2 [69:19 + 72:25]
I make no apology for first quoting wholesale the blurb appended to the details of this release on the Hyperion website, as it succinctly summarises its attractions:
“The ‘Great Suites’ are an inspired, idiosyncratic amalgam of Gallic courtly dances, Italian vocal lyricism, Teutonic counterpoint and robust English tunefulness. Whereas Bach’s keyboard suites follow broadly similar patterns, centred on the traditional French dance sequence of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, Handel’s are unpredictable, with no two suites alike in the number and ordering of their movements. There are fugues, arias with variations, Italian-style sonata movements, even (in No 7) a Passacaglia. Compared with the elaborate finish of Bach’s suites, Handel’s often give the impression of written-down improvisations. In the fantasia-like Preludes, especially, Handel hints at his own genius as extemporiser, while leaving plenty to the performer’s own imagination.”
Danny Driver plays a modern Steinway; obviously the ability to create a legato and gradations of dynamics via judicious pedalling and variety of touch must be balanced against the loss of the percussive tension a big harpsichord can generate in the more grandiose movements, but what wonderfully fluid, nimble, transparent playing this is. Rather than utilise the dynamic possibilities of the modern piano, Driver prefers to substitutes clarity for sonorousness and as a result there is no sense of stylistic incongruity in these performances.
The arpeggiated roulades with which Prelude to the A major suite opens are delivered in a free, rhapsodic manner without sacrificing rhythmic unity too much. This, in combination with Driver’s stylistic approach has the effect of stressing Handel’s kinship with Bach in a manner which I have rarely apprehended previously. One notices the delicacy of his left hand and he subtle manner in which he adds little ornaments reminiscent of vocal embellishments Handel would have expected to hear in his operas.
It is the variety of forms and the freedom with which Handel combines them which lend such vitality and appeal to these lovely works. There are several occasions on which the listener encounters something vaguely familiar, and of course Handel often incorporated the same music into different works; an example is the Presto finale to Suite No.3, which appears in various guises throughout Handel’s oeuvre.
Another piece that will be familiar to many is the charming Air with variations concluding Suite No.5, known to generations of amateur pianists as “The Harmonious Blacksmith”. Yet it is by no means the only high point in this Suite: the preceding Allemande is of surpassing beauty and elegance, played here with a stately yet rapt fluidity which is wholly engaging.
The “Chaconne in G major” makes a wonderfully rousing bonus and a florid climax to this superb recital, affording the opportunity for Driver to display his capacity to encompass both bravura and tenderness.