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George Frideric Handel: Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin (1720) (HWV 426 - 433)

Ludger Rémy, harpsichord [Bruce Kennedy, 2000, after Michael Mietke, Berlin, c1700]

rec: Dec 10 - 13, 2001 & Feb 18 - 20, 2002, Bremen (Ger), Studio of Radio Bremen
CPO - 999 940-2 (2.04'45") (2 CDs)

Suite No. 1 in A (HWV 426); Suite No. 2 in F (HWV 427); Suite No. 3 in d minor (HWV 428) Suite No. 4 in e (HWV 429); Suite No. 5 in A (HWV 430); Suite No. 6 in f sharp minor (HWV 431); Suite No. 7 in g minor (HWV 432); Suite No. 8 in f minor (HWV 433)

"I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons because surreptious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad. I have added several new ones to make the Work more usefull (...)". With this sentence begins the preface to the collection of eight suites, which Handel published in 1720. The fact that some of his keyboard pieces were getting around in corrupt copies was only one of the reasons that forced Handel to publish his suites. The other was that the London publisher John Walsh, in collaboration with his Amsterdam colleague Jeanne Roger, was going to publish a pirate edition.
That such a pirate edition was prepared and that many copies of Handel’s keyboard works were getting around is an indication of his stature as a composer. Therefore it is not surprising that the publication of 1720 had great success. In London it was reprinted, and editions were also published in Amsterdam and Paris. In the second half of the 18th century the suites were republished in London, but there were also editions in Berlin and Vienna. The total number of different editions in the 18th century is around 15. Even after the disappearance of the harpsichord Handel’s suites continued to be popular. Around 1810 they were again published under the title Handel’s Celebrated Suites de Pieces or Lessons for the Piano Forte.

It is not known when Handel composed his keyboard works. A number of them probably date from his youth in Germany. His teacher Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow is known to have owned a large collection of German and Italian keyboard music. And French music was well known in Germany when Handel lived there. So the very fact that Handel’s suites show a wide range of influences – German, Italian and French – doesn’t necessarily mean that they were written after his stay in Italy. At the same time it is likely that some of his keyboard works were written after his arrival in England. It is suggested that some of them were used for keyboard lessons.

In these suites Handel shows his independence towards all the styles he had got to know. Although they are called suites, not a single one of them follows the usual design of the suite. The most traditional is the 4th suite, which contains all four traditional dances of the suite: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. But here Handel breaks with tradition by opening the work with an allegro in form of a fugue. The suite no. 2, on the other hand, is completely out of line: with its sequence of adagio, allegro, adagio and allegro it follows the pattern of the Italian sonata da chiesa.
It is especially the first movements – usually called praeludium – which demonstrate French influence. They are strongly reminiscent of the préludes non mesurés which are so characteristic of the music of the French clavecinistes.
In his liner notes Wolfgang Kostujak states that the German influence is shown in particular in the use of German traditional songs, which Handel uses in three suites: the airs in the Suites 3 and 5 and the passacaille in the 7th Suite.

The cosmopolitan character of Handel’s music makes it impossible to decide what is the ‘right’ harpsichord to play his music. Ludger Rémy has chosen a copy of a German harpsichord from the time of Handel’s youth. Considering the likelihood that a number of Handel’s keyboard pieces were written during his years in Germany that is perfectly defendable. I wonder, though, why the pitch a=c390 Hz, which was common in France at the time, is used here.

The booklet contains an interesting short ‘Essay on Handel’s Harpsichord Suites’ by Ludger Rémy. As far as I can see his remarks about the way he deals with Handel’s suites have far wider implications. He stresses that the music as written down by the composer is only a partial reflection of the way the composer wanted his music to be played. He quotes François Couperin who said, " (...) we notate in a way departing from our true execution". He also refers to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who warns against ‘changes’ which "are against the composition, against the affect, and against the interrelation of the ideas; an unpleasant matter for many a composer", but also says: "regardless of these difficulties and of the misuse involved, the good modifications retain their value at all times." It makes Ludger Rémy answer the question if you (meaning the performer) can "supply voices and add notes" with "yes, you should!"
It is therefore with considerable freedom that Ludger Rémy plays these suites. He constantly keeps the listener on his toes. The adagio from Suite no. 2 is suitable to demonstrate Rémy’s interpretation: the way the chords in the left hand are performed is very differentiated, the upper part is played with just the right amount of rhythmic freedom to give the impression it is improvised – it has some traces of a recitative – and ornaments are added to those Handel already has written down. And Rémy desynchronises left and right hand now and then which makes the lines more independent from each other and enhances the improvisatory character of the piece.
Sometimes the effect of chords is enhanced by short pauses which Rémy creates by abridging the preceding notes. He uses rubato very effectively, but doesn’t avoid strictly observing the rhythm if that is desirable.
And I have to mention the passacaille from Suite no. 7: instead of simply playing the closing chord he adds an appoggiatura which creates a strong dissonant that is resolved after a short hesitation.

The tempi are generally well-chosen. For example the andante from the Suite no. 7 is played with the right walking pace, which only at some moments slows down a little.
Even if one basically agrees with the approach of the performer – which I do - the actual decisions are open for debate. For example, the drone in the bass in the gigue from Suite no. 8 loses its effect a little when ornaments are added. One could argue that maybe Handel just wanted this drone to be loud and clear – more than it is here.
Or take the passacaille from Suite no. 7. Rémy first plays the eight notes the piece is based upon: first in bare form, then harmonised, and only then, after a short transitional passage, the passacaille itself begins. Is there any musical reason for this, or could we consider this a little didactic?

The booklet contains well-written liner notes by Wolfgang Kostujak, but I would have liked a more detailed description of the individual suites and movements. The tracklist contains an error: for the Suite no. 2 the key of D major has been given, although it is in F major. Strangely enough the HWV numbers are not in the tracklist, although they are referred to in the liner notes. Therefore I have added them.

A recording like this is bound to raise some questions. But that is a good thing. It means that it attracts and holds the listener’s attention. As far as I am concerned, this is the most dramatic and exciting recording of Handel’s keyboard suites I have ever heard.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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