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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Harpsichord works

[I] "Works for Keyboard"
Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord
rec: Jan 30 - Feb 1, 2016, Toblach (I), Gustav-Mahler-Saal
Audax - ADX13709 (© 2017) (68'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

William BABELL (1690-1723): Prelude in F [2]; Prelude in G [2]; Suite No. 1 in F (Lascio ch'io pianga (Handel)) [2]; The Overture of Rinaldo (Handel); George Frideric HANDEL: Air in B flat (HWV 469); Capriccio in g minor (HWV 467); Fugue in a minor (HWV 609); Prelude in d minor (HWV 563); Sonata in g minor (HWV 580); Sonatina in a minor (HWV 584); Suite in e minor (HWV 438) [5]; Suite in F (HWV 427) [3] & Allegro in F (HWV 427,5); Suite in G (HWV 435) [5]; Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764): Suite No 7 in B flat (prélude) [1]; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Toccata in a minor; Friedrich Wilhelm ZACHOW (1663-1712): Capriccio in d minor

[II] "Suites de pièces pour le clavecin"
Paolo Zanzu, harpsichord
rec: Sept 14 - 15, 2015, Franc-Waret, Église Saint-Rémy
Musica Ficta - MF8025 (© 2017) (72'53")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

William BABELL: Suite No. 1 in F (Lascio ch'io pianga (Handel)) [2]; Suite No. 4 in G (Vo far guerra (Handel)) [2]; George Frideric HANDEL: Radamisto (HWV 12a) (Dolce bene); Suite in d minor (HWV 437) [5]; Suite in E (HWV 430) [3]; Suite in F (HWV 427) [3]; Suite in G (HWV 435) [3]; Suite in B flat (HWV 434) [5]

[III] "Handel in Ireland Vol. 1"
Bridget Cunningham, harpsichord, harpa
rec: 2016, London, Royal College of Music & St Augustine's Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD478 (© 2017) (72'52")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Aileen Aroon (arr Bridget Cunningham)a; Der arme Irische Junge (arr Bridget Cunningham)a; Handel's Forest Music; William BABELL: Suite No. 1 in F (Lascio ch'io pianga (Handel)) [2]; Charles Thomas CARTER (c1735-1804): Sonatina in E flat, op. 6,10 [7]; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Vivement in d minor [6]; George Frideric HANDEL: Messiah (HWV 56) (overture [after Sinfony], arr John Walsh); Suite in g minor (HWV 432) [3]; Thomas ROSEINGRAVE (1690/91-1766): Suite No. 8 in g minor [4]; John Christopher SMITH (1712-1795): The Overture to Esther (Handel)

Sources: [1] Johann Mattheson, Pièces de clavecin en deux volumes, 1714; [2] William Babell, Suits of the most celebrated lessons collected and fitted to the harpsichord or spinnet, [1717] [3] George Frideric Handel, Suites de Pièces pour le clavecin, premier volume, 1720; [4] Thomas Roseingrave, 8 Suits of Lessons, 1725; [5] George Frideric Handel, Suites de Pièces pour le clavecin, second volume, 1733; [6] Francesco Geminiani, Pièces de clavecin, 1743; [7] Charles Thomas Carter, 12 Familiar Sonatinas, op. 6, c1778


George Frideric Handel was one of the most brilliant keyboard players of his time. His contest on organ and harpsichord with Domenico Scarlatti is one of the best-known stories in his biography. He was especially known for his skills as improviser, which he used, for instance, in his organ concertos. These belong among his best-known instrumental works. In comparison his compositions for harpsichord are hardly known, except the set of eight suites that were published in 1720.

Handel may never have published any of his keyboard music, if the publisher John Walsh, notorious for his lack of scruples, had not prepared a collection of harpsichord pieces which was published under the imprint of Jeanne Roger of Amsterdam. In the preface of the 1720 edition Handel stated: "I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons, because of surrepticious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad. I have added several new ones to make the work more useful, which if it meets with a favourable reception, I will still proceed to publish more, reckoning it my duty with my small talent to serve a nation from which I have received so generous a protection." It seems that he played his keyboard works mostly in private, and for friends and pupils. Some pieces may also have been part of his own activities as a keyboard teacher. Today they are not often played in concert and although there is no lack of discs with his keyboard works, most recordings concern the set of suites of 1720. As far as I know only a couple of complete recordings are available. The word 'complete' probably needs to be used here with some caution, because several pieces are of doubtful authenticity, and there is much debate about what exactly is indeed from Handel's pen. That even goes for the second set of suites, which came from the press in 1733.

On the three discs under review here we hear some of the suites from 1720, but also lesser-known pieces. These are presented within a historical framework: all three discs also include pieces which in one way or another can be connected to Handel and his development as a composer. Philippe Grisvard covers Handel's entire career, from the time he was a pupil of Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow in Halle - his only keyboard teacher - until the later stages of his life in England. The range of pieces in Paolo Zanzu's recording is a little narrower: in addition to works by Handel he plays some of the arrangements of Handel's vocal works from the pen of William Babell, one of his greatest admirers. Bridget Cunningham focuses on one specific stage in Handel's career: "This recording explores some of the myths and mysteries surrounding Handel’s visit from London to Dublin in 1741 and reflects on the influences that Handel experienced from being in Dublin and also the inspiration he gave to others through his music and skills of improvisation at the keyboard", as she puts it in the booklet.

It is appropriate that Grisvard pays attention to Zachow, as his teaching was instrumental in the development of Handel, not only as a keyboard player, but also as a composer. Grisvard pays homage to Zachow's role through the inclusion of his Capriccio in d minor. As part of the teaching process, Handel was obliged to copy a great number of works by older masters, such as Georg Muffat, Johan Philipp Krieger and Johann Jacob Froberger. These were part of a notebook which he put together in 1698 and which accompanied him all his life. In Grisvard's recording this is documented with Krieger's Toccata in A. During his career as a composer Handel regularly turned to the music of older masters and used motifs or even entire pieces or movements and incorporated them into his own works. He soon must have started to compose harpsichord works; it is generally assumed that the largest part of his keyboard oeuvre dates from before 1717. This means that most of the material that was printed in 1720 may well have been written during Handel's German years or in his first years in England. The same probably goes for the second set of 1733. Scholars have generally failed to precisely date Handel's keyboard works. Both the dating and the establishing of the authenticity of what has come down to us under the name of Handel is even more complicated because of the various versions of several of his works. Grisvard includes the Allegro in F (HWV 427,5), which - as the number in the Handel catalogue suggests - was originally part of the Suite in F (HWV 427). It was intended as the last movement of this suite, but in the edition of 1720 it was replaced by a fugue.

Grisvard also includes a piece by Johann Mattheson, who was Handel's colleague at the Hamburg opera. When Mattheson's Pièces de clavecin en deux volumes were published in London, Handel purchased them and played them for his friends. He also quoted Mattheson in some of his own works. The most prominent figure in his programme is William Babell, who was famous for his transcriptions of pieces from operas, not only by Handel, but also other composers. He also wrote original music, such as the two preludes Grisvard includes in his programme, but his transcriptions are the most notable part of his oeuvre. Grisvard plays two of them: The Ouverture of Rinaldo and Lascio ch'io pianga, an aria from his opera Rinaldo and today one of Handel's most famous vocal pieces.

Grisvard offers a nice survey of Handel's output for keyboard. In addition to some of the suites from the 1720 and 1733 editions he plays several separate items of various kinds, most of which are little known. That goes, for instance, for the Sonata larghetto in g minor (HWV 580), the Capriccio in g minor (HWV 467) (called Air lentement at and the Fugue in a minor (HWV 609). The Sonatina in a minor (HWV 584), which closes his programme, is an example of a piece of doubtful authenticity.

Paolo Zanzu entirely focuses on the two printed editions of 1720 and 1733: he plays two suites from the former, and three from the latter. The 1733 edition includes the Suite in G, which consists of only a chaconne; that is the longest work in the programme and closes the disc. In addition we hear two pieces by Babell: the almost inevitable aria Lascio ch'io pianga, and - from the same opera - the much longer Vo far guerra. As far as I am concerned, this is a specimen of rather empty virtuosity, especially because of the endless scales in the last section. Dolce bene is an aria from the opera Radamisto and was published by Chrysander in his edition of Handel's works of 1894. It is taken from an anonymous manuscript dating from somewhere between 1740 and 1760. In the Handel catalogue it is included as part of a set of four opera arias, and the addition that an autograph survives, suggests that we have to do here with an authentic transcription by Handel himself.

"Handel in Ireland" is the intriguing title of the programme recorded by Bridget Cunningham. It is part of a series of recordings which document aspects of Handel's activities as a composer. Before Cunningham devoted discs to Handel's Italian period and the playing of his music at Vauxhall Gardens, both with the ensemble London Early Opera. Here she can be heard as a harpsichord soloist in a programme of music connected to Handel's stay in Dublin 1741/42. The most notable part of his Irish sojourn was the premiere of his oratorio Messiah in April 1742. After his return he presented it to the English audiences, and as it was received well, John Walsh explored its success by publishing a keyboard arrangement of the sinfony, which was re-called overture. In February and April 1742 Handel also performed the oratorio Esther in Dublin. The Overture to Esther is taken from a version by John Christopher Smith, for many years Handel's assistant. Cunningham, in her liner-notes, suggests that it could be a transcription by Handel himself.

Whereas these pieces can be connected directly or indirectly to Dublin, a large part of the programme has little or nothing to do with Handel's Irish sojourn. Cunningham also included the two arrangements of arias from Rinaldo which I have mentioned before, but this opera dates from 1711; its last revival was in 1717, and a second strongly altered revival is from 1731. No performances in Ireland are documented. I also can't see any Irish connection in the Suite in g minor (HWV 432). According to anecdotes Handel composed the Forest Music in 1742 in Dublin, but its authenticity has not been established as yet. The Vivement in d minor by Francesco Geminiani is "a jig style movement again reflecting the dance of both the concert and folk worlds which were both prominent musical traditions working side by side in Ireland." Geminiani has been in Ireland, but what exactly this piece has to do with 'Handel in Ireland' is a mystery to me. The same goes for the inclusion of a suite by Thomas Roseingrave; he moved to Ireland after his retirement from his post as organist of St George's Church, Hanover Square, the church Handel attended. However, that was in the 1750s.

Charles Thomas Carter was born in Dublin. His Sonatina in E flat is written in the galant idiom. It is from a set of pieces for harpsichord or fortepiano, and I certainly would like to hear more of them, but I fail to see the connection to Handel's activities in Dublin. After all he was born around 1735, six years before Handel's stay in Ireland. It seems different with the last two items in the programme: Handel probably knew the two Irish melodies, presented here as Der arme Irische Junge (The poor Irish boy), probably the title Handel gave to this piece (but Cunningham doesn't mention the issue) and Aileen Aroon, a popular air that was often performed in Dublin in the 1740s and 1750s alongside music by Handel and others. Handel may have known this piece, but there is only anecdotal evidence for that.

As one may conclude I am not impressed by the way Bridget Cunningham has put together her programme. It could be quite interesting to devote a disc to music composed or performed in Dublin in the mid-18th century, but the present programme lacks consistency.

An interesting question is: which harpsichord is most appropriate for Handel's keyboard works? That is hard to say, because we know little about the instruments he may have known or played himself during his career. Moreover, his keyboard works date from several stages in his life and as a consequence may be connected to different kinds of harpsichords. And to make things even more complicated: in most cases we don't know for sure when and where he wrote his keyboard works. Both Grisvard and Zanzu play copies of German instruments: the former a harpsichord by Michael Mietke and the latter an instrument from "the school of Gottfried Silbermann", as the booklet says. Cunningham's instruments are both French: the copy of a Ruckers with a ravalement by Blanchet, and the copy of an original Blanchet. Considering the subject of her recording that seems a rather odd choice. The choice of instrument probably depends on the perspective from which a player approaches the repertoire. If we take into account that many of the harpsichord works may have been written in Germany, the choice of a German harpsichord is an obvious one. However, if one takes his starting point at the date of publication of the suites, another instrument may be preferable.

Closely connected to this issue is the choice of pitch. Zanzu uses the lowest: a=405 Hz, whereas both Grisvard and Cunningham have opted for 415 Hz. The temperaments are also different: Zanzu uses 'Silbermann', Cunningham 'shifted Vallotti', and Grisvard 1/4 comma meantone (with the exception of one piece by Handel). The latter may be the most surprising, but it is reasonable to assume that before his departure to Italy this was the most common temperament in Germany. As far as England is concerned, it seems that there was no standard temperament, but there are reasons to believe that for quite a long time meantone temperament was the norm. The issues of pitch and temperament are not discussed in the respective booklets. Richard Egarr, in the liner-notes to his recording of the 1720 suites (Harmonia mundi, 2013), plays a Ruckers copy (he writes that Handel knew such instruments) and uses the pitch of a=422 Hz. He adds that this pitch was still in use by the piano firm Broadwood a century later. He does not discuss the temperament, but according to the booklet he uses his own tuning, "based on 18th-century models".

Suffice to say that there is no concluding evidence for one or the other of the decisions taken by the three respective interpreters. So let's turn to the interpretations. Overall I am pretty happy with the performances of Grisvard and Zanzu. Both have the right tempi, they articulate well and the brilliance and exuberance of many pieces is well realised. In the end I slightly prefer Grisvard, who finds the middle ground between doing too little and doing too much. I feel that the latter is the case with Zanzu. He uses the lute stop a bit too often and couples the two manuals a little too frequently. Bot play Babell's arrangement of Lascia ch'io pianga and Zanzu apparently feels the need to add a little of his own to the many notes Babell has written. To me that seems overdone, and I prefer here Grisvard who is more modest in this respect. Zanzu's performance of Vo far guerra is admirable, but even he can't save the piece.

Bridget Cunningham plays both transcriptions as well, but her performances are not very good, I'm afraid. For Vo far guerra she needs about four minutes more than Zanzu, and that makes it even worse. The tempo is too slow, and Cunningham's playing is stiff and angular. That is indicative of her interpretations in general, unfortunately. The Overture to Esther is pretty horrible, and lacks any flair and imagination. The opening of Handel's Suite in g minor is just as problematic. Not every piece is that bad; I actually enjoyed the sonatina by Carter. In Der arme Irische Junge and Aileen Aroon she plays both the harpsichord and the harp. This can only be done thanks to modern recording technique. I am firmly against this: a disc should document what can be done in a live performance. I hate it when musicians are singing or playing a duet with themselves.

I recommend Grisvard and Zanzu; the former has the more interesting programme, but as they largely play different pieces they are no direct competitors. Bridget Cunningham, despite playing some interesting stuff, should better be avoided.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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Bridget Cunningham

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