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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Organ Concertos, Op 4 [69:14]
Organ Concertos, Op 7 [83:05]
Organ Concerto No 13 in F, HWV295 [12:01]
Jeremy Joseph (organ)
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck (organ)
rec. January 2021, Golden Hall, Musikverein, Vienna.
ALPHA CLASSICS 742 [164:20]

Soloist duties are shared between Martin Haselböck and Jeremy Joseph on this two-disc set of Handel’s complete organ concertos, with Haselböck soloist in the Op 4 concertos and “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”, and Joseph for the Op 7 set. More than that, each has written his own booklet essay for the concertos in which he is soloist, and these appear to have been prepared without any cross-referencing of the two, which means there is some contradictory material as both soloists seek to justify and explain their very different approaches. Neither is totally reliable in terms of historical fact, with Haselböck the more specious of the two. He seems keen to claim Handel, and the concertos, as Viennese property (Handel never visited Vienna) and puts forward some very spurious claims as to the legitimacy of the 2011 Rieger instrument in the Musikverien as an “authentic” Handel instrument. He writes of its “subtle, chamber-like timbres of Handel’s original theatre organs”, and while it may well have these, Haselböck seems to avoid them in his performances, preferring the loud, raucous mutations which seem to hark back more to the late 20th century.

Haselböck’s performances are, in one key area, very much in line with Handel’s original concept. They focus attention on the player and his personal virtuosity. He puts himself very much centre stage, with extravagant registrations and spectacular displays of showmanship, moving freely aware from the bare bones of the score to give us a lavish demonstration of his musical prowess. Set against performances which aim for historical authenticity in sound and style, this seems to stick out like a sore thumb, but historical authenticity is not so much about sound and style as intention, and we can be sure that Handel would have done something very much like Haselböck does here were he let loose on a 2011 Rieger in a sumptuous concert hall. The orchestral playing is firm and precise, never intruding on performances which are all about personal display.

Jeremy Joseph takes us, in his booklet notes, through Handel’s relation with the organ, and looks at aspects of his playing including the famous “hours-long keyboard duel with Domenico Scarlatti in Rome”. That focus on Handel the player, as opposed to either the instrument itself or the circumstances of the concertos’ original performances, is mirrored in his own playing which is certainly much closer in sound and style to what we today think Handel would have done. Joseph’s performances of the Op 7 set are tighter, more controlled, and altogether more restrained than Haselböck’s approach to the Op 4 concertos, and with very crisp, muscular orchestral playing, I find this not only a lot less contentious than Haselböck’s approach, but far more satisfying from a purely musical standpoint.

There is no shortage of fine recorded performances of the Handel concertos, and for true authenticity in terms of choice of instrument and performance practice, Paul Nicholson with the Brandenburg Consort on Hyperion is my top choice (review) even though the effect is far more intimate than Handel would ever have countenanced. Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (on Warner Apex review) gives us the happy combination of historical authenticity and extrovert showmanship, which is probably closer to Handel’s’ original intentions. I’m afraid this latest release from Alpha is too uneven to work properly for me.

Marc Rochester

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