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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Chamber music

[I] "Op. 2 Trio Sonatas"
London Handel Players

rec: Nov 27 - 29, 2007, London, St Mary's Church, Walthamstow
Somm Recordings - SOMMCD 084 (© 2009) (63'55")

[II] "A Flauto e Cembalo"
Heiko ter Schegget, recorder; Zvi Meniker, harpsichord

rec: July 13 - 15, 2008, Abtei Marienmünster, Ehemaliges Ackerhaus
MDG - 905 1564-6 (© 2009) (63'45")

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

[II] Andante in d minor (HWV 409); Menuet in d minor (HWV deest); Sonata in C, op. 1,7 (HWV 365); Sonata in d minor (HWV 367); Sonata in F, op. 1,2 (HWV 369); Sonata in g minor, op. 1,2 (HWV 360); Sonata in a minor, op. 1,4 (HWV 362); Sonata in B flat (HWV 377)

[I] Rachel Brown, transverse flutea; Adrian Butterfield, Oliver Webberb, violin; Katherine Sharman, cello; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord

George Frideric Handel was one of the greatest 'recyclers' in music history. In many of his compositions one finds material he has already used in other works. The six trio sonatas opus 2 are no exception. Many movements are also known from vocal works or other instrumental compositions. It is not always clear what came first. But these sonatas are generally considered as early works.

The six trio sonatas may have been composed at various moments in Handel's career, they follow the structure of the Italian sonata da chiesa, divided into four movements in the order slow - fast - slow - fast. The Sonata in F, op. 2,4 is different in that it has five movements, the last two being both allegros. There is some confusion as for which instruments these sonatas are written. The reason is that publishers in the 18th century were rather unscrupulous in regard to the wishes of the composer. And so instruments like the recorder, the transverse flute and the oboe are suggested as possibilities. In this recording the first treble part of the Sonata in b minor, op. 2,1 and the Sonata in F, op. 2,4 are played on the transverse flute, whereas the other four sonatas are performed with two violins. There seems to be consensus about Handel's intentions about the scoring of the Sonata No. 1, but the use of the transverse flute in the Sonata No. 4 is based purely on the publisher's (Walsh) suggestion.

The performance of the trio sonatas is uneven. Some movements come off really well, like the first allegro from the Sonata in g minor, op. 2,5 which is getting a theatrical interpretation, whereas the drive and the rhythmic pulse of the first allegro from the Sonata in F, op. 2,4 are impressive. The following adagio is performed with much expression, and the tempo and articulation of the andante from the Sonata in B flat, op. 2,3 are very good. But some other movements are disappointing. The andantes are generally too slow, often the performances are not very speechlike and lack differentiation. The tempo of the largo from the Sonata in b minor, op. 2,1 is well-chosen, but the interpretation is pretty boring. Just compare it with the performance of Sonnerie, with a beautiful and subtle realisation of the flute part by Wilbert Hazelzet. The closing allegro of the Sonata in g minor, op. 2,2 is too slow, and the harpsichord continuo too noisy.

Despite some well-performed movements, the recording by Sonnerie is superior in every respect. The booklet says that Rachel Brown plays the transverse flute and the recorder. I have no idea why the recorder is mentioned, as I haven't heard it on this disc.

The second disc is devoted to the sonatas which Handel originally composed for the recorder. Because of his popularity there was a large market of amateurs who wanted to play sonatas by Handel. A clever publisher like John Walsh used this situation to his own advantage, as he printed sonatas - without Handel's permission - for the most popular instruments among amateurs, the recorder and the transverse flute. That has led to considerable confusion in regard to their original scoring. On this disc we hear the sonatas which Handel conceived for the recorder. The title of the disc refers to the titles found on the manuscripts of four of them. This suggests the recorder is accompanied here by an obbligato harpsichord, but that is not the case. The harpsichord plays a basso continuo part, and this could also be played by a string bass alone.

There is no lack of recordings of these sonatas. Even so this disc has something to offer which most recordings have to do without: the use of an original recorder. Historical wind instruments are precious and vulnerable. In his notes on the instruments used in this recording Heiko ter Schegget writes: "Unlike string instruments, recorders get 'used up' during extended periods of playing, since the player's humid breath swells the old wood and creates air currents that in turn cause erosion". He plays a treble recorder in F by Peter Bressan from around 1715, which is part of Frans Brüggen's collection. Because of the vulnerability of such an instrument he uses it only in two sonatas (HWV 365 and 369). In the other sonatas he plays two of his own copies, after the Bressan recorder and after an instrument by Thomas Stanesby Sr. which is also part of the collection of Frans Brüggen.

The performance is excellent throughout. Heiko ter Schegget excels in his generous addition of ornaments - all very stylish and tasteful - and his differentiated treatment of dynamics, both on longer notes and between good and bad notes. The tempi are well-chosen, and now and then the players slow down a little which creates some additional tension. Zvi Meniker realises the basso continuo part brilliantly. He plays a copy of an instrument by Christian Vater of 1738. I probably would have preferred an English or a French instrument, both for historical and for stylistic reasons. In some fast movements this harpsichord is a bit too loud.

The performances are compelling and engaging, though, and no Handel lover or recorder aficionado should miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Heiko ter Schegget

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