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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Trio sonatas op. 2 & op. 5

[I] "Trio Sonatas Opus 2"
The Brook Street Band
rec: Feb 28 - March 3, 2013, Raveningham, St Andrew's Church
AVIE - AV2282 (© 2013) (69'49")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata in b minor, op. 2, 1 (HWV 386b)b; Sonata in g minor, op. 2, 2 (HWV 387); Sonata in B flat, op. 2, 3 (HWV 388); Sonata in F, op. 2, 4 (HWV 389)a; Sonata in g minor, op. 2, 5 (HWV 390); Sonata in g minor, op. 2, 6 (HWV 391); [bonus track] Passacaille

Lisete da Silva, recordera, transverse fluteb; Rachel Harris, Farran Scott, violin*; Tatty Theo, cello; Carolyn Gibley, harpsichord
(*) The booklet gives no indication as to which player plays the violin part in the sonatas 1 and 4.

[II] "To all lovers of Musick - Sonatas op. 5"
Al Ayre Español
Dir: Eduardo López Banzo
rec: August 18 - 23, 2014, Zaragoza, Auditorio
Challenge Classics - CC72663 (© 2015) (76'34")
Liner-notes: E/S
Cover & track-list

Sonata in A, op. 5,1 (HWV 396); Sonata in D, op. 5,2 (HWV 397); Sonata in e minor, op. 5,3 (HWV 398); Sonata in G, op. 5,4 (HWV 399); Sonata in g minor, op. 5,5 (HWV 400); Sonata in F, op. 5,6 (HWV 401); Sonata in B flat, op. 5,7 (HWV 402)

Alexis Aguado, Kepa Arteche de la Fuente, violin; James Bush, cello; Francisco Aguiló Matas, violone; Juan Carlos De Mulder, archlute; Eduardo López Banzo, harpsichord

Trio sonatas belong to the core of instrumental music of the baroque period. Arcangelo Corelli laid the foundation for this genre: he published four sets of trio sonatas (opp. 1 to 4) before turning to the genres of the solo sonata and the concerto grosso. With his trio sonatas he inspired many composers of the next generations across Europe.

They had several reasons to publish trio sonatas. These often were the first compositions from their pen which came from the press because they were pre-eminently suitable to show a composer's skills. A set of trio sonatas was also a way to make a name for oneself as these were largely intended for the growing market of amateurs. They required music which was interesting and technically challenging but not too complicated. Because of that the publication of trio sonatas could be very profitable. England was a special case: since the late 17th century it was under the spell of the Italian style and especially the music of Corelli was played across the country. One could expect every collection of music which followed in his footsteps to be enthusiastically embraced. That made a publication of such music also profitable for publishers. A shrewd music printer as John Walsh was only too keen to print a set of six trio sonatas under the name of George Frideric Handel as his op. 2. They were modelled after Corelli's sonatas and Handel had achieved the status of one of England's most popular composers. Walsh was not a very conscientious businessman and published the set under the name of the Amsterdam publisher Roger. By making sure the publication was riddled with errors he wanted to infuriate Handel in such a way that he was only too happy to allow Walsh to publish an 'authorised' edition; this came from the press in 1733.

In order to increase sales Walsh added "Flutes, or Hoboys" as alternatives to the violins for the two upper parts. However, it seems that only in the first sonata Handel himself intended the first part to be played on the transverse flute. The fourth sonata also mentions the transverse flute for the first part; the Brook Street Band opted for the recorder here. Some scholars believe that the reference to the flute is from Walsh's pen and not according to Handel's intentions. The use of the recorder is inspired by the key of F which Handel often used for recorder pieces. Richard Egarr follows the same practice in his recording with members of the Academy of Ancient Music (Harmonia mundi, 2009), Trio Sonnerie only plays the first sonata with transverse flute whereas London Baroque confines itself to violins (Harmonia mundi, 1992/2003).

To what extent exactly this set is entirely Handel's work or whether John Walsh is mainly responsible for the make-up of this set is hard to say. All the music is from his pen but the majority of the movements also turns up in another context, especially his Chandos Anthems and organ concertos as well as some of his oratorios. Because of that it seems likely that this collection of sonatas is a kind of compilation of pieces from different stages in Handel's career, although the majority probably dates from around 1720.

The second set of trio sonatas which was published in 1739 is not that different. It has been suggested that this was largely the work of John Walsh who put together pieces from many different compositions by Handel. Among the sources are again the Chandos Anthems but also various operas (for instance Arianna in Creta, Ezio, Radamisto) and keyboard music. There is a difference between the two sets: the op. 2 sonatas are modelled after Corelli's sonata da chiesa whereas the op. 5 is loosely based on the sonata da camera and includes various dances. The number of movements varies: four are in five movements, the other three in six. The number of seven sonatas is also unusual: it was common practice to publish sonatas and concertos in series of six or twelve. The title of op. 5 gives transverse flutes as alternatives to violins but the recordings I know all confine themselves to the latter.

The two recordings reviewed here are very different. I have enjoyed the performances by The Brook Street Band. The ensemble is excellent, whether with only violins or in the combination of violin and recorder or transverse flute. The slow movements receive expressive readings and the fast movements are played with much zest and rhythmic flair. I noted with satisfaction that there is quite some dynamic shading and a clear differentiation between good and bad notes. The basso continuo has enough presence and this recording shows that cello and harpsichord suffice to give the melody instruments the rhythmic and harmonic support they need. In short, it is a well balanced and musically fully satisfying recording.

That is very different in the case of the op. 5. Eduardo López Banzo and his colleagues have been unable to resist the temptation of doing too much. It is true that Handel's trio sonatas include considerable dramatic elements but there is no need to emphasize that in such a demonstrative way. More often than not it is completely counterproductive. The basso continuo section has often far too much presence; it is also too large for music which was published for amateurs: how many will have had a violone and an archlute at their disposal? It sometimes enters with a thunderous effect, for instance in the second allegro from the Sonata in A, op. 5,1; that is especially notable as in the first 30 seconds the violins are accompanied by the cello alone. There is again an exaggerated contrast between the andante and the allegro of the musette from the Sonata in D, op. 5,2; the latter is rude and aggressive. The ensuing march is another example of exaggeration and so is the passacaille from the Sonata in G, op. 5,4. The performers do too much, probably in an attempt to make it more interesting but in that regard they fail spectacularly. It only results in the coherence of this piece being damaged. I can't see any reason for the cadenzas of theorbo (largo) and cello (a tempo giusto) respectively in the Sonata in g minor, op. 5,5. Even more absurd is the concertante role of the harpsichord in the adagio from the Sonata in F, op. 5,6. The dance movements which close the sonatas - gavotte, bourrée or menuet - are always played very fast, at the cost of a clear exposure of the rhythms. The fact that the closing phrase of the bourrée which ends the Sonata in g minor is repeated forte and at a higher speed fits into the picture of this recording.

I have to add that the sound of the violins is often a bit muffled and lacks clarity. The acoustic is anything but ideal; there is too much reverberation and as a result the fortes become even more exaggerated than they already are. All in all I find these performances mostly pretty annoying and often simply ugly. I don't want to hear them again. If you look for a good recording of the op. 5 trio sonatas London Baroque (Harmonia mundi, 1992) seems a good choice. It has also been recorded by The Brook Street Band; I haven't heard it, but if it is as good as the op. 2 performances reviewed here that should be a good option as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Al Ayre Español
The Brook Street Band

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