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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Organ Concertos, Salve Regina, Saeviat tellus"

Chiara Skerath, sopranoa; Gaétan Jarry, organb
Ensemble Marguerite Louise
Dir: Gaétan Jarry

rec: June 11 - 14, 2020, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS049 (© 2021) (71'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto for organ and orchestra in G minor, op. 4,1 (HWV 289)b; Concerto for organ and orchestra in F, op. 4,4 (HWV 292)b; Concerto for organ and orchestra in D minor, op. 7,4 (HWV 309)b; Salve Regina (HWV 241)ab; Saeviat tellus inter rigores (HWV 240)a

Vincent Blanchard, Jon Olaberria, oboe; Alejandro Perez Marin, Lucile Tessier, bassoon; Emmanuel Resche-Caserta, Patrizio Germone, Tami Troman, Fiona-Emilie Poupard, Augusta McKay Lodge, Liv Heym, violin; Patrick Oliva, Satryo Aryobimo Yudomartono, viola; Cyril Poulet, Julien Hainsworth, cello; Hugo Abraham, double bass; Etienne Galletier, theorbo; Clément Geoffroy, harpsichord, organ

The combination of three organ concertos and two motets by George Frideric Handel on one disc is rather unusual. They have little in common, except that in one aria in the Salve Regina Handel included an obbligato organ part. However, the motets and the concertos date from different periods in Handel's career and were performed in very different circumstances.

Salve Regina is a setting of one of the Marian antiphons, and because of its liturgical importance, it has been set numerous times in the course of history. Handel's version was probably first performed in 1707 in Rome in the private chapel of the Marchese Francesco Ruspoli at Vignanello, and was performed again later in Rome. The scoring for soprano, two violins and basso continuo was quite common at the time. The obbligato organ part was rather unusual. As Handel was a brilliant organist it isn't far-fetched to assume that he himself played this part during the performance. The four sections have tempo indications: largo (Salve Regina), adagio (Ad te clamamus), allegro (Eja ergo) and adagissimo (O clemens).

Saeviat tellus inter rigores was composed for a celebration of the Carmelite Order held in Rome on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1707. It is a quite dramatic piece, and that goes in particular for the opening aria, which is also the most technically challenging part of this piece, especially because of its range which goes to the high D. In this motet the Carmelite order is incited to remain fearless in the face of adversity, as it enjoys the protection of the Virgin Mary. The main adversary is Lucifer, but his weapons are harmless.

The performances by Chiara Skerath are pretty good, although she uses a bit more vibrato than is justified. However, it is in particular in the more dramatic episodes that she shows her skills. The opening aria of Saeviat tellus is a perfect example. In the more introverted arias she is less convincing. The expression in the second aria of the Salve Regina does not entirely come off, as she does not really explore the devices Handel uses here (Seufzer, pauses). The recitatives are rhythmically too strict.

The three organ concertos date from the 1730s, where Handel had established himself as a composer of opera. However, in the early 1730s this genre lost its appeal, and Handel turned his attention to another genre: the oratorio. In 1735 he 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, 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. It is assumed that it was his secretary, John Christopher Smith, 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.

Handel's organ concertos are quite popular, but it is not easy to establish on exactly what kind of organ he played them. Moreover, the performing circumstances are also hard to copy. Most of them were performed in Covent Garden Theatre, and the organ there had seven stops. 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 Burney wrote 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". The organ used here, is a modern instrument, built by Quentin Blumenrœder after an organ by Andreas Silbermann of 1719. It has two manuals and pedal and is erected in the Chapelle Royale of the Versailles palace to be used as basso continuo instrument. It seems that the disposition is different from what Handel had at his disposal, and I don't find the sound very idiomatic for these concertos. However, the fact that I can't really warm to these performances is also due to the interpretation which is neat but not very imaginative. The sound of the organ is rather thin, and Gaétan Jarry could have made more of the solo parts. I also think that Handel's orchestra was substantially larger than the Ensemble Marguerite Louise.

On balance, I find it hard to assess this recording. There are better recordings of the complete organ concertos, and the motets are also rather well-known and available in a number of recordings. In the end, the latter are the best part of this disc and they may appeal to Handel aficionados.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Chiara Skerath
Ensemble Marguerite Louise

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