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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo
Sonata in G, HWV 358 [5:21]
Sonata in D Minor, HWV 359a [7:41]
Sonata in A, HWV 361 [7:53]
Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a [6:35]
Sonata in A, HWV 372 [7:50]
Sonata in E, HWV 373 [9:09]
Sonata in G minor, HWV 368 [9:41]
Sonata in F, HWV 370 [12:37]
Sonata in D, HWV 371 [12:49]
The Brook Street Band: Rachel Harris (baroque violin), Tatty Theo (baroque cello), Carolyn Gibley (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, The Great Barn, Oxnead Hall, Norfolk, UK
AVIE AV2387 [80:00]

Period-instrument ensemble The Brook Street Band (BSB) takes its name from the London Street where George Frideric Handel lived from 1723-1759. Formed back in 1996, it quickly established itself as one of the UK’s leading Handel exponents. Having celebrated their 20th anniversary with the composer’s Trio Sonatas for Two Violins and Basso Continuo (AV2357), which itself followed on from their recordings of his Trio Sonatas Opus 2 (AV2282) and Opus 5 (AV2068) respectively, the Handel-specialists have now turned their attention with their latest CD to all nine of the violin sonatas that bear his name, again on the Avie Records label.

As BSB cellist Tatty Theo points out in her most-informative sleeve-notes (in German and French, too), for someone as well-known as Handel, the history of his violin sonatas is somewhat complicated. Simply put, it would seem that the answer to how many he actually wrote, rather depends on whom you ask – and when.

If that were the only complication, it wouldn’t really be that crucial. But BSB have specifically entitled their new CD ‘Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo’, rather than Andrew Manze’s earlier ‘Complete Violin Sonatas’, on Harmonia Mundi (HMU907259). This, of course, highlights one important facet of BSB’s CD – namely that the violin is supported by cello and harpsichord continuo, unlike Manze’s violin, which is accompanied just by the harpsichord alone. In fact, it’s not always even that clear, when both György Pauk’s selection of Handel Sonatas on Hungaroton (HCD12657), and Ensemble Vintage Köln’s complete set on Naxos (8572245) use basso continuo, though it’s not detailed in the title, whereas American-violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s complete performance on the Cedille label (CDR9000032) has continuo, and this is duly credited on the front cover. We shall return to this later.

All the CDs mentioned above use period instruments – or their modern-day copies – even though only BSB and Ensemble Vintage Köln make specific mention of baroque violin, baroque cello, and viola da gamba (Köln). Today, most listeners are familiar with the inherently different sound produced on a baroque violin or cello compared with their modern equivalent. But, as with any instrument – old or new – it’s also the way it’s played that will ultimately determine whether we like the sound, or not.

Moving on to the thorny issue of vibrato, given, of course, that there are no sound records to draw on, a ‘baroque performance style’ has emerged based only on written descriptions of the playing, augmented by additional annotations and comments written by performers in the score. The internet is awash with articles about the use of vibrato in the baroque period, many of which are quite contradictory. Clearly it was used, but not to the degree that we see in later times. But to deny its use completely is really to take away one of the instrument’s most expressive features, as with the solo voice. It is, however, largely a question of getting the balance right. Yes, it’s present, to varying degrees, on all the CDs mentioned – used with greater subtlety by some, while more overtly noticeable with others. But at the end of the day, it has to be down to the individual listener’s taste and how it sounds, rather than just being guided by an erudite pronouncement on the subject, from a cloistered academic somewhere.

If it were just on the respective merits of Manze’s, and BSB violinist Rachel Harris’s performances, then there wouldn’t be a lot in it. I would probably come down in favour of Manze, simply because he plays more sweetly overall, and is somewhat more generous with his use of vibrato, on long notes in particular. But for me, Manze’s dispensing with basso continuo is the real game-changer. Throughout the baroque period, there was a recognised need to consider the harmonic polarity of the outer parts – where a melody supported by a strong and unambiguous bass-line, implies acceptable harmony, without the real need for any further parts. Furthermore, just as in any real conversation, there will not only be imitation (question and answer) between melody and bass, but also moments where they speak as one voice.

It is a characteristic feature of baroque music in general, but more so a distinctive feature of Handel’s particular style of writing. Theo emphasises this point, too, when arguing for the inclusion of the cello. True, the harpsichordist’s left hand provides the bass line, but, unsupported, is not really prominent enough, nor innately sufficiently expressive to match a solo instrument, in this case a violin. But with today’s online facility, it is so easy to listen to a sound-clip from one CD, and then immediately compare it with the same clip from another. If you were to do so with a track from Manze’s CD – preferably an Allegro movement, where the difference is probably more pronounced – with the same one from BSB, you might be quite surprised by how many imitation points between violin and bass-line you miss on the former, simply because the harpsichord is not designed for touch-sensitivity to add greater prominence, unlike its successor, the piano.

On my scoresheet, BSB are now well ahead on points, and yet they still have a couple more cards to play. First, as Theo elucidates, BSB were particularly inspired while making their CD, by the ‘beautiful setting of the Great Barn at Oxnead Hall, its historic atmosphere and the quality of the stunning Norfolk light.’ Now I’m sure this did make for a particularly enjoyable time laying down the tracks, rather than in some sterile recording studio, say, in the middle of London. But I really do feel it added somewhat more than just a pleasant working-environment. Returning briefly to the subject of vibrato, very often the physical acoustic of the venue itself will add extra nuances here, too, rather as with a church-organ. While it’s hard to quantify exactly what it brought to the recording, it certainly gave it an undeniable edge over any studio location, where resonance and reverberation need to be added artificially.

But their real match-winning ace is the outgoing and extremely gregarious style of music-making heard on the CD. It’s as if their playing is live, with all the sheer spontaneity this imparts, but has to be tempered by some degree of caution, given that it is a recording for posterity, rather than for the moment. Here Avie’s outstanding, forward-placed recording further contributes to the great sense of immediacy in the playing and to the clarity of ornamentation. Yes, there may be the odd moment when this resultant big sound might be ‘too hot to handle’ for the more faint-hearted listener, but what you gain otherwise is well worth it.

Handel’s attractive and engaging music speaks for itself, and both the standard of his writing, and BSB’s playing is unblemished in each of the nine works recorded, eight of which are in conventional four-movement format (slow-fast-slow-fast), with the opening Sonata in G having just three movements – fast, slow, fast. There is more than sufficient contrast between these various movements, and from the players, a true concern for dynamics and appropriate ornamentation, where one of the obvious benefits is that repeats don’t just sound like carbon copies.

For me, this new offering from The Brook Street Band – as intoxicating and spirited as it is sensitive and feeling – will now be the new benchmark for others to aspire to. For no sooner had I started to play the CD, but through the imagined wonders of time-travel I felt as if I was there right in the front row along with the other members of an eighteenth-century audience, sitting back and enjoying what Handel’s Violin Sonatas really – or probably - sounded like at the time. With Paul Marc Mitchell’s simple, yet remarkably eye-catching, cover art-work, this is altogether a superb new CD release – whichever way you look at it.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)


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