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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Organ Concertos & Concerti grossi

[I] 6 Concerti grossi Op. 3
Van Diemen's Band
Dir: Martin Gester
rec: Oct 29 - Nov 2, 2019, Sandy Bay (Tasmania), Church of St Canice
BIS - 2079 (© 2021) (62'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,1(HWV 312); Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,2 (HWV 313); Concerto grosso in G, op. 3,3 (HWV 314); Concerto grosso in F, op. 3,4 (HWV 315); Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3,5 (HWV 316); Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,6 (HWV 317)

Georgia Browne, recorder, transverse flute; Simone Slattery, recorder, violin; Jasu Moisio, Ingo Mueller, oboe; Juia Fredersdorff, Lucinda Moon, Brendan Joyce, Emily Sheppard, Susie Furphy, Jenny Owen, violin; Deirdre Dowling, Nicole Forsyth, viola; Catherine Jones, Natasha Kraemer, cello; Kirsty McCahon, double bass; Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo; Aline Zylberajch, harpsichord

[II] "Organ Concertos Op. 4 & Op. 7"
Martin Haselböcka, Jeremy Josephb, organ
Orchester Wiener Akademie
Dir: Martin Haselböck
rec: Jan 2021, Vienna, Musikverein (Goldener Saal)
Alpha - 742 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (2.44'20")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in g minor, op. 4,1 (HWV 289)a; Concerto in B flat, op. 4,2 (HWV 290)a; Concerto in g minor, op. 4,3 (HWV 291)a; Concerto in F, op. 4,4 (HWV 292)a; Concerto in F, op. 4,5 (HWV 293)a; Concerto in B flat, op. 4,6 (HWV 294)a; Concerto in B flat, op. 7,1 (HWV 306)b; Concerto in A, op. 7,2 (HWV 307)b; Concerto in B flat, op. 7,3 (HWV 308)b; Concerto in d minor, op. 7,4 (HWV 309)b; Concerto in g minor, op. 7,5 (HWV 310)b; Concerto in B flat, op. 7,6 (HWV 311)b; Concerto in F 'The Cuckoo and the Nightingale' (HWV 295)a

Michael Oman, Florian Brandstetter, recorder; Emma Black, Stanislav Zhukovsky, oboe; Katalin Sebella, Edurne Santos Arrastua, bassoon; Ilia Korol, Anna-Maria Smerd, Diana Kiendl-Samarovski, Aliona Piatrouskaya, Iris Krall-Radulian, David Drabek, Elisabeth Wiesbauer, Maria Kaluzhskikh, Ja Kyoung Kim, Thomas Trsek, Irma Niskanen, violin; Wolfram Fortin, Éva Posvanecz, Martina Reiter, viola; Philipp Comploi, Peter Trefflinger, cello; Walter Bachkönig, Jan Krigovsky, double bass; Martin Haselböck, Jeremy Joseph, harpsichord


Since the publication of the music by Arcangelo Corelli, England was seized by a real Corellimania, which gradually turned into a passion for Italian music in general. As a result, England - and in particular London - was the place to be for Italian performers and composers looking for employment. The fact that London was also a centre of music printing further contributed to the dissemination of music in the Italian style for all sorts of scorings, from concerti grossi for strings to sonatas for recorder.

George Frideric Handel must have been aware of the huge popularity of Italian music, and he himself, although German by birth, had very much embraced that style in his vocal and instrumental music. Among all the foreign composers who had settled in England, he was by far the most successful and the most influential. This was explored by the publisher John Walsh, who printed several editions of chamber music, almost certainly without the composer's consent. That makes it rather difficult to decide what exactly was in line with Handel's intentions. That also goes for his concerti grossi which came from the press as his Opus 3 in 1734. It is a collection of different pieces, written in different periods of Handel's career, and mostly used before in another context, mainly as overtures to vocal music, in particular operas. This explains their rather unconventional and different form.

The number of movements varies from two to five. The Concerto No. 6 in D is the oddest of the six, as it comprises just two movements. The second movement includes a solo for the organ, and this inspired Martin Gester, directing here the Australian Van Diemen's Band, to insert an improvised organ solo between the two movements. This way he treats it as if it were one of Handel's organ concertos (which are discussed later). This concerto is just one example of an unconventional scoring. The other concertos are also far away from Corelli's concerti grossi, which are for strings (although they were sometimes performed with wind instruments, playing colla parte with the strings). The Concerto grosso No. 1 in B flat includes a solo part for the violin, and in one movement two recorders participate. Also notable here are the two viola parts, which suggests that this work dates from Handel's time in Hanover, which was under strong French influence (writing five string parts was a typical feature of the French style). The Concerto grosso No. 2 in B flat has two solo violin parts, and the Concerto No. 3 a part for transverse flute, which can also be played on the oboe; here the performers have opted for the former. The most 'conventional' concertos, as far as the scoring is concerned, are the Nos. 4 and 5, which are both for two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The Concerto No. 4 was first used as the overture to the opera Amadigi (1716), and opens with a movement in the French style.

There is no lack of recordings of these concerti grossi. The present recording is pretty good, and the fact that here some decisions are taken which are different from other recordings, makes it an interesting proposition for real Handelians. I already referred to the performance of the Concerto No. 6. In the Concerto No. 5, Gester decided to omit the oboe parts in the third movement, an adagio. He characterises it as a "plaintive movement (...) close in style to the Lamentations of Alessandro Scarlatti, and we have found that using strings alone (without oboes) is the way to bringing out the poignant intensity". The fast movements are often a bit too slow, and that diminishes the contrasts within these concertos.

Handel took also advantage of the popularity of the Italian style in the field of opera. In the first two decades after his arrival in England he enjoyed much success with his Italian operas. That came to an end in the early 1730s. He had to deal with a rival opera company, which attracted many singers who used to participate in the performance of his operas, and the music loving public also became tired of the genre of Italian opera. Add to that a revival of the old ideal of dramatic works on English texts, and one can understand that Handel felt the need to turn away from the kind of works he had written so far and attempt to write music in English. He opted for the genre of the oratorio, and in the next decades he created some of his best works which are still frequently performed. As the English liked to compare their nation with the Old Testament Israel, oratorios on subjects from its history did well with the public.

In 1735 Handel also came up with something entirely new (at least in England): during the intervals of his oratorio performances, he played organ concertos, in which he himself was the soloist. He was famous as an organist and especially for his improvisational skills, which he could explore in these concertos. The reactions were different. A newspaper wrote that during a revival of the oratorio Esther (first performed in 1718), he "has introduced two Concerto's on the Organ that are inimitable. But so strong is the Disgust against him, that even this has been far from bringing his crowded Audiences". However, when later in 1735 a new organ was made for the Covent Garden Theatre, where it was first played by Handel during performances of Deborah, his supporters were very impressed. One wrote that "no entertainment in music could exceed it, except his playing on the organ in Esther, where he performs a part in two concertos, that are the finest things I ever heard in my life".

The early concertos were published by Walsh in 1738 as the Opus 4. As they had to be suitable for performance by a wide circle of musicians, including skilled amateurs, the printed edition gives only a faint idea of what Handel may have played during the actual performances. Charles Burney wrote that "he rather chose to trust to his inventive powers, than those of reminiscence: for, giving the band only the skeleton, or ritornels of each movement, he played all the solo parts extempore, while the other instruments left him, ad libitum".

There has always been speculation as to what extent Handel has been involved in the publication of his works by John Walsh. He certainly was not involved in the publication of the second set of six organ concertos: they came from the press as his Opus 7 posthumously, in 1761. The Concerto No. 5 ends with a gavotte that was added by his secretary, John Christopher Smith, who can be considered the person who compiled these concertos from the material that Handel had left. The difference with the Opus 4 is that here several movements require the performer to improvise himself. In that regard, this set is more demanding than the first. Another difference is that the Opus 4 comprises mostly original material, and where Handel used pre-existing material, this is mostly taken from his own works. However, in the Opus 7 concertos he frequently turns to material from works by other composers, such as Gottlieb Muffat, Georg Philipp Telemann and the largely unknown Franz Johann Habermann.

Any performer of Handel's organ concertos has to take a decision with regard to the instrument to be used. The organs in England were very different from the instruments that Handel had known in Germany in his formative years. English organs, even those in cathedrals, usually had no pedalboard. That makes the pedal part in the Concerto in B flat, op. 7,1 rather surprising. It was first played at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in February 1740, during a performance of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Jeremy Joseph, in his liner-notes to the Opus 7 concertos, writes that the organ there "would have been equipped with a 'pulldown' pedalboard (a coupling of the keyboard to the pedal)". We cannot be entirely sure on what kind of instruments Handel may have played his concertos. Most of them were performed in Covent Garden Theatre, and the organ there had seven stops. At the time meantone temperament was still quite common in England. The performances which are offered here by Martin Haselböck and Jeremy Joseph with the Orchester Wiener Akademie are rather far away from the performance practice in Handel's own days.

The solo parts are played on the large Rieger organ of 2011 in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein. Haselböck writes that this instrument "possesses not only the symphonic sound required for Romantic and modern music, but also all the subtle chamber-like timbres of Handel's original theatre organs". That may be the case, but I wonder whether one can simply isolate a part of the organ from the entire instrument. Moreover, this organ undoubtedly is tuned in equal temperament (this issue is not discussed in the booklet) and the space is much larger than the rather intimate theatres where Handel performed these concertos. The recording also took place in an empty hall, whereas Handel performed the concertos during performances in a full house. And then we have the connection between the organ and the orchestra: here there is quite a distance between the two. Joseph mentions that Handel performed some of his concertos on an organ with a detached keyboard, which allowed him to be seated in front of the orchestra, and he quotes Burney that when Handel improvised his solos, the players were "waiting for the signal of a shake, before they played such fragments of symphony as they found in their books". Such a practice is impossible to recreate here, as the picture of the hall with the organ in the booklet clearly shows. Haseilböck also states that his orchestra "certainly uses smaller forces than Handel's theatre orchestra, which was described as a 'big band' that made a 'terrible noise'". I am not so sure whether he is right.

It is a bit of a mystery to me why it was decided to use this particular organ for Handel's concertos. I don't deny its qualities, but it is by far not the ideal instrument for this repertoire. The playing of the two organists and the orchestra is generally quite good, and I very much appreciate Joseph's improvisations, but the character of the organ and the acoustic result often in a lack of clarity of articulation, especially in the faster movements. From that angle, I find it hard to really recommend this production. Over the years I have heard several recordings which have their merits but also their shortcomings. In the end, I probably would turn to one of the first period instrument recordings of these concertos, by Daniel Chorzempa and Concerto Amsterdam.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Jeremy Joseph
Van Diemen's Band
Orchester Wiener Akademie

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