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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Chamber Music
L’Ecole d’Orphée (Stephen Preston (flute), John Holloway, Micaela Comberti and Alison Bury (violins), David Reichenberg (oboe), Philip Pickett and Rachel Beckett (recorders), Susan Sheppard (cello), John Toll, Lucy Carolan and Robert Wooley (harpsichords))
rec. St Margaret’s church, Harpsden-cum-Bolney, Oxfordshire; Church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, London; St Lawrence (Whitchurch), Stanmore, Middlesex; dates not given CRD 5002 [6 CDs: 395:16]
This is a welcome reissue by CRD since it brings together in a single box set various individual releases by L’Ecole d’Orphée into a more or less complete collection of the chamber works which can be confidently ascribed to Handel, in generally dependable and authoritative performances.
The first volume is given over to the flute sonatas, including the three so-called ‘Halle’ Sonatas published in Handel’s lifetime: They are assumed to be works composed in his earliest period in Germany, but attribution is uncertain. Stephen Preston brings a gentle, limpid tone to his performances, perhaps sometimes sounding diluted and watery, but there is an easy flow to the music, even when he interprets melodies of equal note values in a sophisticated French manner as notes inégales with a dotted rhythm instead. That cleanness of line is particularly evident in the second ‘Halle’ Sonata, with the agilely handled chromatic leaps of its first movement and the dotted melody of the Minuet. Ornamentation is tasteful and reserved, and may even strike modern ears now as cautious though, doubtless, at the time of recording, performers were approaching such music afresh in the context of authentic performance practice. Preston’s approach to the expansive theme of the first movement of HWV378 is tentative and reticent, but the opening of the B minor ‘Halle’ Sonata is surprisingly brusque. The use of vibrato reserved for the Largo of the Sonata Opus 1 No. 9 makes it sound expressive and languid.
The violin and oboe sonatas fill the second disc. For the most part John Holloway’s playing on the violin is sweetly expressive, not only in the A major Sonata HWV361, but also in the austerity of the D minor Sonata HWV359a. There is a wiry quality of tone in the finale of HWV364a, however, and the double stopping of the A major’s second movement does not project very clearly. He could also have conveyed something more of the grandeur and spaciousness of the last dateable sonata by Handel, that in D, HWV371, but otherwise Holloway is attentive to the shape and structure of musical phrases. That, and his embellishments, go some way to fill in the harmony lacking in HWV364a as a result of the decision to play this on violin and cello alone, acting on the suggestion of one of the printed editions of the Opus 1 sonatas that they are ‘solos … with a thorough bass for the harpsichord or bass violin’. David Reichenberg’s playing on the oboe is sprightly and vivid, not at all acidic or grating as that instrument at close recorded range might become. Particularly in the HWV357 Sonata, there is a witty, even furtive, quality in the interpretation, followed by a fuller, more sonorous tone in the C minor Sonata HWV366.
The recorder sonatas on the last disc are divided between Philip Pickett and Rachel Beckett, though individual attributions are not made. Perhaps surprisingly, they often bring a richer, more varied tonal palette to their performances than Stephen Preston on the flute, switching between a clean despatch of fast torrents of notes, such as in the last movement of the B flat Sonata HWV377, and more eloquently nuanced phrasing in slower passages, even in the austere lines of HWV362’s opening movement in A minor. Only occasionally do the performers fail to live up to such acuity elsewhere, for example in the opening movement of HWV360 where the phrases seem curt and could be shaded more subtly. Although the sonatas themselves are generally unfamiliar, some of them are better known in other incarnations, such as the F major HWV369 which was adapted later as the ‘Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ Organ Concerto, while the Vivace of the D minor Sonata HWV367a clearly evokes the Hornpipe from the Water Music.
There is pleasing variety from the different combinations of instrumentalists utilised in the Opus 2 trio sonatas, though the performances tend to be efficient rather than inspired. They do not always seek out the innate tension and drama of the music, which is often implied by Handel’s sequences or suspensions, such as in the framing movements of No. 2 – apparently one of the composer’s earliest compositions, dating from 1699 or 1700. No. 3 could also benefit from more wit and sparkle, whilst there is little bloom to the violin tone in the last Sonata, which seems rather metallic. Holloway and Micaela Comberti sound more radiant and silvery in the Opus 5 sonatas, which come over with alacrity, such as the opening movement of No. 2, suggestive of a French overture, or even No. 5 in G minor. The slow chromatic coda of the second movement of No. 6 suffers from some approximate intonation and generalised timbre, but that is uncharacteristic, since the violinists achieve the same finesse in the concluding Passacaille and Gigue of No. 4 as their orchestral originals, as used in the ballet sequence Terpsichore for the opera Il pastor fido.
Other recordings of the trio sonatas since these have instilled more interpretative vigour and imagination, or simply taken more risks with the music, for example the Academy of Ancient Music, or the Brook Street Band. The latter have also made a delectable follow-up disc of the same miscellaneous trio sonatas which feature on the fifth disc of this CRD set. Although L’Ecole d’Orphée’s performances of these more obscure compositions are perfectly idiomatic, those by the Brook Street Band edge them out for their greater panache, necessary to make a case for these miscellaneous works which are otherwise liable to fall by the musical wayside.
For those interested in textural matters, this collection remains competitive, since the only other such set by the Academy Chamber Ensemble on Philips is not readily available any more, and so for the time being this will remain a highly competitive issue for collectors. Deciding what constitutes the canon of Handel’s chamber music is a fraught business, since the collections of solo sonatas Opus 1, and the trio sonatas Opus 2 and 5 were assembled by publishers, possibly without Handel’s co-operation, from works which were not written expressly as a set, but compiled from pre-existing compositions or arrangements. Some sonatas also exist in alternative versions, and the various original editions of the Opus 1 collection contained a slightly different series from each other, some of which we now know to be almost certainly spurious.
There is no such thing as a definitive edition of Handel’s chamber music, then, but this CRD collation is an approximation of it. It is curiously inconsistent as to the doubtful and inauthentic works it does include. Some are given, such as the ‘Halle’ Sonatas, and the Trio Sonatas HWV393 and 394. Their inclusion is fairly justified in the liner notes as ‘provid[ing] an occasion for the application of the most valid of all criteria – that of aesthetic judgement’. But others are not, such as the Violin Sonatas nos. 10, 12, 14, 15 of the Opus 1 sonatas, and the Trio Sonata for two flutes, HWV395, of uncertain authenticity, all of which Philips includes, as well as the fragmentary, but authentic, Fantasia HWV406. It is a shame to omit the inauthentic A major and E major Sonatas as they are enchanting gems, at least mimicking the Handelian style, and many violinists will have played them at some point. Putting those aside, however, the CRD collection has a better claim to completeness with respect to the authentic works, since it includes the recorder Sonata HWV358, an alternative version of the first of the Opus 2 trio sonatas, and two individual movements for violin (HWV408 and 412), which Philips does not, as similarly the versions for other instruments of the Opus 1 sonatas HWV359b, 363b, and 367b. The CRD collection is slightly more complete, therefore, which Handel completists will find preferable, and those missing violin sonatas can be found in separate recordings extracting just the violin works by Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi, and Ensemble Vintage Köln on Naxos, as well as in the complete Opus 1 from the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr on another Harmonia Mundi release.
The CD notes are very informative about the provenance of each work and can hardly be faulted on that account. But as the solo sonatas are grouped by CD according to the instrument they are scored for and, since the Opus 1 set are a collation of works for different instruments, there is no clear overview as to the textural problems over different versions and editions, or the issues regarding authenticity, so the listener is left to piece that together for himself. Another snag is that a whole composition is given a single track each, so it is necessary to forward through to later movements within a given work.
Nevertheless, these are minor flaws and the collection remains a fine achievement – as of now the only means of exploring the chamber music of one of Baroque music’s greatest figures. As such it will be essential listening for Handelians, for whom it will provide great pleasure in hearing various movements they will already know in different guises, and the music’s innate charm will certainly appeal to them and the general music lover.
Contents CD 1: The Flute Sonatas [74:22]
Sonata in E minor, HWV379 (Op.1/1a) [11:41]
Hallenser Sonata No. 1 in A minor, HWV374 [10:48]
Hallenser Sonata No. 2 in E minor, HWV375 [6:49]
Hallenser Sonata No. 3 in B minor, HWV376 [7:23]
Sonata in D major, HWV378 [7:07]
Sonata in G major, HWV363b (Op.1/5) [7:39]
Sonata in B minor, HWV367b (Op.1/9) [14:30]
Sonata in E minor, HWV359b (Op.1/1b) [6:50] CD 2: The Violin and Oboe Sonatas [57:42]
Violin Sonata in A major, HWV361 (Op.1/3) [7:09]
Violin Sonata in G minor, HWV354a (Op.1/6) [6:00]
Oboe Sonata in B flat major, HWV357 [6:06]
Violin Sonata in D minor, HWV359a (Op.1/1b) [6:56]
Oboe Sonata in C minor, HWV366 (Op.1/8) [6:11]
Violin Movement in A minor, HWV408 [2:01]
Violin Movement (Allegro) in C minor, HWV412 [3:00]
Oboe Sonata in F major, HWV364a (Op.1/5) [7:58]
Violin Sonata in D major, HWV371 (Op.1/13) [11:03] CD 3: Trio Sonatas Op.2 [60:21]
Sonata No. 1 in B minor, HWV386b [10:44]
Sonata No. 2 in G minor, HWV387 [9:35]
Sonata No. 3 in B flat major, HWV388 [10:40]
Sonata No. 4 in F major, HWV389 [11:20]
Sonata No. 5 in G minor, HWV390 [10:07]
Sonata No. 6 in G minor, HWV391 [7:55] CD 4: Trio Sonatas Op.5 [70:18]
Sonata No. 1 in A major, HWV396 [7:08]
Sonata No. 2 in D major, HWV397 [8:08]
Sonata No. 3 in E minor, HWV398 [9:36]
Sonata No. 4 in G major, HWV399 [12:39]
Sonata No. 5 in G minor, HWV400 [10:23]
Sonata No. 6 in F major, HWV401 [12:14]
Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, HWV402 [9:20] CD 5: Trio Sonatas [65:41]
Sinfonia in B flat major, HWV339 [10:29]
Trio Sonata in F major, HWV392 [10:53]
Trio Sonata in C minor, HWV386a [11:02]
Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV393 [10:25]
Trio Sonata in C major, HWV403 [12:13]
Trio Sonata in E major, HWV394 [10:34] CD 6: Recorder Sonatas [66:52]
Sonata in G major, HWV358 [4:48]
Sonata in G minor, HWV360 (Op.1/2) [7:50]
Sonata in A minor, HWV362 (Op.1/4) [10:17]
Sonata in C major, HWV365 (Op.1/7) [11:37]
Sonata in F major, HWV369 (Op.1/11) [7:16]
Sonata in B flat major, HWV377 [5:30]
Sonata in D minor, HWV367a (Op.1/9) [14:30]
Trio Sonata in F major, HWV405 [5:31]