The first thing that came into my mind when opening up this box was, who would/should buy it, and why? Browsing the contents list gave the impression of a somewhat unpromising mixed bag. The selection of music, if not exactly random, favours some genres but omits operas entirely; a Handel ‘Edition’ without operas. The age of the recordings varies widely; some are recent, some old, and one or two are really old. Performing styles vary from period instrument and style through acceptable renditions on modern instruments to one or two examples in the weighty tradition of the nineteenth century.
One can look at it as a sample of Handel’s prodigious output; a big box of music by one of the greats at a price of little more than a pound a disc. So, possibly a bargain? That said, the low price wouldn’t guarantee that if the performances were poor or happen not to suit the taste of the buyer. A decision may well come down to where the balance lies after looking at positives and negatives of individual discs. To try to come to a view, I considered it from my own standpoint of taste and knowledge but I don’t expect any one person to share my performance-by-performance opinions. Having said that, my comments may cast enough light to enable readers to make up their own minds.
My guess is that, even with such a well-known composer, most listeners will get, a nice surprise or two. For a start, it was good to get to know at least a few of Handel’s little-recorded corpus of around a hundred cantatas, many composed during his stay in Italy from 1706 to 1710, via a selection performed by the Italian period instrument band Contrasto Armonico with soloist Canadian soprano Stefanie True. This is a fine ensemble which yields nothing to others better known — in the UK at least — and True’s vocal agility, accurate intonation and stylish ornamentation are spot-on in this repertoire. Her characterization of the various roles is a reminder that for Handel these cantatas substituted to some extent for opera when the genre was the subject of a papal ban in Rome. Adding to this impression is the most substantial of the cantatas in the set, the pastoral romance Aminta e Filide for two sopranos, where True is joined by Klaartje van Veldhoven; a most enjoyable work with a variety of instrumental textures. Another gem, the extended cantata Apollo e Dafne, documents the origins of the laurel wreaths of heroes in a lovely performance from Musica ad Rhenum.
From the same period, and with the same forces, comes the delightful masque or serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (not to be confused with the later – and English – Acis and Galatea) written for an aristocratic wedding during Handel’s brief stay in Naples in 1708. The trio of Stefanie True, richly-voiced mezzo Luciana Mancini and bass Mitchell Sandler share the solo roles and balance each other well. This is a long way from opera as such – no chorus, no staging – but the vocal acting and varied instrumental textures help to compensate.
Not all the discs in this ‘cantata’ section of the set satisfy; a selection of the Italian Duets, with different performers, is excessively mannered and sometimes out of tune, and a recording from 1980 of the Nine German Arias from Arleen Auger with modern instruments shows its age. The beauty of Auger’s voice didn’t compensate for the lack of period style.
Another area with a good chance of a felicitous discovery is the keyboard music; while the eight ‘Great Suites’ are fairly well-known, they form only about a quarter of the harpsichord music presented here. ‘Fairly’ because, although they contain some of the best of Handel’s music in this genre, the suites have been relatively little recorded, especially in comparison with Bach’s suites. Recently, there has been more interest, as much from pianists as harpsichordists.
Like Bach, Handel was adept at synthesizing the national styles into an idiom of his own. A suite may start with a French overture or a prelude owing much to the Gallic prélude non mesuré, but the allemande that follows might just as easily reflect his Italian experience. There is no established pattern; one is just as likely to find Italian-style sonata movements, fugues and themes-and-variations. Michael Borgstede’s account first appeared on the Brilliant label in 2008 and is very competitive with those of Richard Egarr and Paul Nicholson. Borgstede also plays the suites (including the Chaconne in G HWV435) published in 1733 but written much earlier; less substantial than the ‘Great Suites’, there is still much fine music to be discovered here.
That’s not all; Roberto Loreggian, who has previously recorded Frescobaldi for Brilliant, is assigned four CDs of suites, partitas, preludes, chaconnes, fugues and other miscellaneous pieces - ‘Impertinence’, anyone? - providing a most enjoyable browse for the inquisitive. Finally in the keyboard bran-tub is a disc of romantic-era transcriptions for organ of mostly oratorio numbers. Purists can look away now, for distinctly un-baroque versions of Zadok the Priest and the famous Largo are played on a fine modern instrument built in 2010; hugely enjoyable.
Staying with agreeable surprises, I had not reckoned myself a fan of oratorio (in general, not just Handel’s) but was much taken with the performance of Jephtha which comes across not only as a depiction of a biblical episode but as a very moving human drama. A generally fine team of soloists includes John Mark Ainsley and Michael George and the period orchestra Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Marcus Creed accompanies stylishly. John Mark Ainsley is also the excellent tenor soloist in the Messiah in a competitive if not ideal performance. The only other oratorio recorded on period instruments, La Resurrezione, comes from the Contrasto Armonico forces as above. As a MusicWeb International colleague pointed out, this is an adequate performance but some deficiencies disqualify it as a top recommendation. However, as a first listen to this early Oratorio — one of only two from Handel’s period in Italy — it’s a reasonable starting point if the work interests. The same applies in different degrees to other oratorio performances in this set.
Unfortunately, at least as far as my taste is concerned, all the other oratorios in the set are performed on modern instruments and are fairly elderly. However, the accounts of Judas Maccabeus (1972), Solomon (1974) and Theodora (1968) with the English Chamber Orchestra were considered stylish in their time and, even today, the crisply articulated orchestral playing is more than bearable. While the voices of soloists Heather Harper, Heather Watts, Robert Tear et al might be considered heavy and vibrato-laden by today’s standards, they were the Handelians of their day and their singing is wonderful in its own way. All the ECO performances are listenable at least once but I must say their memory is obliterated as soon as I hear the lighter voices of today’s singers alongside period instruments in lively tempi, enhancing the drama far more effectively.
Saul is heavily cut but, if you persevere beyond the out-of-tune rendition of “How excellent thy name, oh Lord”, you do get the wondrous, characterful voices of Helen Watts, Thomas Hemsley and Jennifer Vyvyan, though I would rather have heard them in Vaughan Williams, Schubert or Britten. Saul is much better served by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players. These old oratorio recordings are further disadvantaged by an opacity of sound that reduces clarity in the choral numbers.
In general, I would say that each of the oratorios may be listened to at least once, if only to provide a baseline for further exploration of historically informed, more recent accounts. Paradoxically, one I might return to is the 1963 recording of Samson from the Utah Symphony Orchestra and Chorus which is a kind of analogue of Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions, a Technicolor rendition of spotlit vocals and glossy orchestral sound. It's weirdly enjoyable in its own way and a tribute to the resilience of Handel’s music that it can withstand such treatment. Perhaps not the only one to have to live with, though.
While I made interesting discoveries among the cantatas, keyboard music and oratorios (in one, at least), they didn’t turn up in all genres. The orchestral/instrumental section has a preponderance of modern instrument accounts, for the most part acceptable. For example, the Concerti Grossi Opp. 3 and 6, as played by the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig in a recording dating from 1983, are decent but unexceptional with a hint of period style about them — this band is much better in its current incarnation. The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra’s work on the Organ Concertos is punchy and the organ has some tasty flute and reed sounds. Again, Anthony Camden and Julia Girdwood are tasteful soloists in the Oboe Concertos. Even so, after years of conditioning from the baroque oboe in these works, I soon tired of the sound of the modern instrument.
One that I really don’t ever want to hear again is a thickly recorded and turgid performance of the Music for the Royal Fireworks dating from 1974 conducted by Helmut Koch. This has little interest other than as a monument to outmoded approaches that have rightly been consigned to history. There are now so many “modern” — period style renditions — by the likes of the English Concert, Les Concerts des Nations and Zefiro, all of which can be safely recommended, though it’s a pity that Concerto Köln has not recorded it. On the very same CD, that band gives crisp and sprightly performances of two Sinfonias in B flat written forty years apart. The disparity with the Fireworks performance could hardly be greater. Concerto Köln also gives the only other period performance in this section; their Water Music is a highlight of the set.
In contrast, the chamber music is all on period instruments, almost all of which are given in uniformly good performances by L’Ecole d’Orfée with Stephen Preston, John Holloway and David Reichenberg soloists on flute, violin and oboe respectively. No problems for return visits here but, to my mind, the recorder sonatas stand out in this section. Erik Bosgraaf is a dynamic and assertive player with a creative line in ornamentation, and matched in these attributes by Francesco Corti at the harpsichord.
Finally, a small selection of vocal works. The Odes Alexander’s Feast and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne are in truly antique versions over fifty years old and of mere curiosity interest now. I would apply the same reasoning that I did to the oratorios, that you might consider these performances worth having as ‘starter’ versions before moving on to what would now be considered (rightly, I would say) more Handelian accounts. On the other hand, if you are enamoured of the counter-tenor style of the Dellers, you might see them as indispensable.
The Dettingen Te Deum was written to celebrate the English victory over the French at Dettingen during the War of the Austrian Succession. Perhaps Handel was particularly motivated by the fact that George II personally led his troops into battle to write this brilliant work; perhaps not the most subtle of his achievements but nevertheless an impressive listen in the right hands. Unfortunately, Helmut Koch’s hands (see Fireworks above) are not; the sound is clogged, the chorus too large and there is only one soloist, instead of the specified three. As if this weren’t enough, this patriotically martial work is performed in German, an inappropriate language in the circumstances. The English Concert under Trevor Pinnock solves all these problems in their fine recording. The language problem recurs in the Utrechter Te Deum and Friedensode, aka Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, though this German version is musically far better than the English one mentioned above. It has a good team of soloists.
So, a mixed bag indeed. There is plenty here to more than make up for the absence of opera but the value of this set depends to a large extent on your familiarity with the repertoire and your performance-related sympathies. For me, the discoveries made it worthwhile and I expect to be dipping into this set for a long time to come. The overall value of the set is such that, even with those discs you’ll only hear once, you can think you are getting something for nothing.
A mixed bag with the potential for agreeable surprises.
CONTENTS LIST CD1 Water Music Suite No. 1 in F Major, HWV348 Suite No. 2 in D Major, HWV349 Suite No. 3 in G Major, HWV350
Concerto Köln, Anton Steck conductor, recorded 13-16 May 2007, Studio Stolberger Straße, Cologne CD2 Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV351
Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, Helmut Koch conductor, recorded March 1974, SKR Berlin Sinfonia in B-Flat Major, HWV339 Sinfonia in B-Flat Major, HWV347
Concerto Köln, Anton Steck conductor, recorded 13-16 May 2007, Studio Stolberger Straße, Cologne CD3-7 Concerti Grossi Concerti grossi, Op. 3, HWV312 – 318 Concerti grossi, Op. 6, HWV319 - 322 Concerti grossi, Op. 6, HWV323 - 326 Concerti grossi, Op. 6, HWV327 – 330 Concerto a due cori, HWV332 - 334
Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig, Max Pommer conductor, recorded 1983, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig CD8-12 Organ and Harp Concertos Organ Concertos Nos. 1 - 5, HWV289 - 293 Harp Concerto, HWV294 Organ Concerto No. 6, HWV294 Organ Concerto No. 7, HWV306 Organ Concertos No. 8 - 11, HWV307 - 310 Organ Concertos Nos. 12 - 15, HWV311, 295, 296a, 304 Organ Concerto No. 16, HWV305 Fugues, HWV605, 607, 608, 610
Christian Schmitt, organ; Charlotte Balzereit, harp; Juliane Heutjer, Elodie Wiemer, recorder Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Nicol Matt conductor, recorded Summer/Autumn 2004, Evangelische Schlosskapelle Solitude, Stuttgart CD13 Oboe Concerto in G Minor, HWV287 Oboe Concerto in B- Flat Major, HWV302a Airand Rondo, after HWV466 Suite, HWV432 Overture to Otho, from HWV15
Anthony Camden, oboe; Julie Girdwood, oboe (Suite, Overture)
City of London Sinfonia, Nicholas Ward conductor, recorded 24 & 27 April 1995, All Saints Church, East Finchley, UK CD14-18 Instrumental Sonatas Flute Sonatas, Op. 1, HWV379, 374 - 376, 378, 363b, 359b Violin Sonatas, HWV361, HWV364a Oboe Sonata, HWV357 Violin Sonata, HWV359a Oboe Sonata, HWV366 Andante, HWV412 Allegro, HWV408 Oboe Sonata, HWV363a Violin Sonata, HWV371 Trio Sonatas, HWV386b, 387 – 391, 396 – 402 Sinfonia, HWV339 Trio Sonatas, HWV392, 386a, 393, 403, 394
L'École d'Orphée: David Reichenberg, oboe; Stephen Preston, flute; Philip Pickett, recorder; John Holloway, violin; Micaela Comberti, violin; Alison Bury, violin; Susan Sheppard, cello; John Toll, Robert Woolley and Lucy Carolan, harpsichord; recorded 1991 CD19 Recorder Sonatas, HWV365, 367a, 360, 377, 362, 369, 358
Erik Bosgraaf, recorders; Francesco Corti, harpsichord; recorded June, 2008, Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, Rhoon, The Netherlands CD20-23 Harpsichord Suites Suites, HWV426 – 433 (‘Great’), HWV434-441 Preludio Vo' far guerra from Rinaldo
Michael Borgstede, harpsichord; recorded January, 2008, Remonstrantse Doopsgezinde Church, Deventer, The Netherlands CD24-27 Harpsichord Music Suites, Partitas, Preludes, Fugues, Sonatinas and miscellaneous keyboard pieces, HWV443, 450, 563, 571, 453, 564, 472, 485, 448, 449, 581, 478,611, 486, 444, 445, 576, 467, 586, 583, 580, 487, 471, 567, 568, 573, 566, 466, 470, 494, 465, 475, 489, 442, 605-610, 577, 481, 574, 490, 447, 452, 483, 446, 477, 476, 492, 562, 582, 585, 570, 468, 578, 575, 496, 454, 572, 579
Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord, recorded 2015 at Abbazia di Santa, Maria delle Carceri d'Este, Padua, Italy CD28 Romantic Organ Transcriptions The Occasional Oratorio, HWV62 Suite, HWV434 Serse HWV40 - Largo (“Ombra mai fu”) Saul, HWV53, Act I: Symphony Messiah, HWV56: "I know that my Redeemer liveth" Messiah, HWV56: "Hallelujah" Prelude and Fugue, HWV433 Zadok the priest, HWV258 Judas Maccabaeus, HWV63, Act III: See the conqu'ring hero comes Messiah, HWV56: "Lift up your heads"
Massimo Gabba, organ, recorded September 2012 at the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, Alessandria, Italy CD29 Nine German Arias German Arias: I - IX, HWV202 – 210
Arleen Auger, soprano, recorded April 1980, Paul-Gerhard-Kirche, Leipzig, Germany CD30 Cantatas for Soprano I-IV Da quel giorno fatale, HWV99 Ditemi, o piante, HWV107 Care selve, aure grate, HWV88 Allor ch'io dissi addio HWV80 Un'alma innamorata, HWV173 O lucenti, o sereni occhi, HWV144 Aure soavi e liete, HWV84 Tra le fiamme, HWV170 Aminta e Fillide, HWV83 Clori, mia bella Clori, HWV92 Sans y penser (Cantate française), HWV155 Clori, vezzosa Clori HWV95 Pensieri notturni di Filli (Nel dolce dell'oblio), HWV134 Lungi n'andò Fileno, HWV128
Stefanie True, soprano, Klaartje van Veldhoven, soprano; Marco Vitale, harpsichord and conducting Contrasto Armonico, recorded 2009-10 at the Oud Katholieke Kerk, Delft, The Netherlands CD34Cantatas for Soprano V Mira Lilla gentile, cantata à canto solo con violino obbligato La caduta di Icaro, cantata a canto solo con violini Mira Lilla gentile, cantata à canto solo con violoncello obbligato Tra le fiamme (Il consiglio), HWV170
Valentina Varriale, soprano, Mvsica Perdvta, conducted by Renato Criscuolo, recorded November 2010 at Millenium Recording Studio, Rome, and December 2011 and May 2012 at the Oratorio dei Padri Barnabiti, Rome CD35 Italian Duets Sonata in B Major Quel fior che all'alba ride, HWV154 Preludio in D Minor Và, và, speme infida, pur, HWV199 Prelude Amor gioie mi porge, HWV180 Entreé Caro autor di mia doglia, HWV181a Toccata Ahi, nelle sorti umane, HWV179 Prelude No, di voi non vò fidarmi, HWV189
Gemma Bertagnoli, Susanne Rydén, soprano; Harmonices Mundi, Claudio Astronio, conductor, recorded July 2009 at Vereinshaus, Lengmoos, Süd-Tirol CD36 Incidental music to The Alchemist, HWV43 Apollo e Dafne (La terra è liberata), HWV122
Musica ad Rhenum, directed by Jed Wentz, recorded in 2006 CD37&38 Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, HWV72
Stefanie True, soprano, Luciana Mancini, mezzo-soprano, Mitchell Sandler, bass; Marco Vitale conducting Contrasto Armonico, recorded October 2007 at the Oud Katholieke Kerk, Delft, The Netherlands CD39&40 Alexander's Feast, HWV75, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anna, HWV74
Soloists including Alfred and Mark Deller, Oriana Concert Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of the Vienna Symphony conducted by Alfred Deller; recorded in 1963 at the Konzerthaus, Vienna and in 1964 at the Baumgarten, Vienna CD41 Zadok the Priest, HWV258 My Heart is Inditing, HWV261 (Sir David Willcocks conducts the Holland Boys' Choir) The King Shall Rejoice, HWV260 (Sir David Willcocks conducts the Holland Boys' Choir) Organ Concerto in B- Flat Major, HWV306
Dutch Baroque Orchestra conducted by Sir David Willcocks; recorded in 1996 MusicWeb International review CD42 Dettingen Te Deum, HWV283
Berliner Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Helmut Koch MusicWeb International review CD43 Friedensode (Ode für den Geburtstag der Königin Anna), HWV74 Utrecht Te Deum, HWV278
Kammerorchester Berlin conducted by Dietrich Knothe MusicWeb International review CD44 Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, HWV76
Händel-Festspielorchester Halle conducted by Christian Kluttig MusicWeb International review CD45&46 Messiah, HWV56
Brandenburg Consort and Choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by Stephen Cleobury MusicWeb International review CD47&48 La resurrezione, HWV47
Contrasto Armonico conducted by Marco Vitale MusicWeb International review CD49 - 51 Jephtha, HWV70
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Marcus Creed MusicWeb International review CD52&53 Israel in Egypt, HWV54
Orchester der Deutschen Händel-Solisten conducted by Anthony Bramall; recorded in February 2006 at Radisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, Germany CD54&55 Judas Maccabaeus, HWV63
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Johannes Somary MusicWeb International review CD56&57 Samson, HWV57
Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Abravanel; recorded in 1963 CD58&59 Theodora, HWV68
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Johannes Somary MusicWeb International review CD60&61 Saul, HWV53
Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mogens Wöldike; recorded in 1972 CD62&63 Solomon, HWV67
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Johannes Somary; recorded in 1974 CD64&65 Semele, HWV58
English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Johannes Somary MusicWeb International review