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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Organ Concertos Opus 4

[A] Richard Egarr, organab; William Carter, archluteb
The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir.: Richard Egarr
rec: Nov 2006, London, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807446 (© 2007) (71'34")

[B] Lorenzo Ghielmi, organa; Margret Köll, harpb; Luca Pianca, luteb
La Divina Armonia
Dir.: Lorenzo Ghielmi
rec: May 23 - 25, 2007, Valle di Colorina, Santuario del Divin
Passacaille - 944 (© 2008) (71'40")

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)ab

The early 1730's were a difficult stage in Handel's career. There was a growing aversion against Italian opera, and an increasing interest in dramatic works on English text. A rival opera company was founded, which attracted most of the singers who used to sing in Handel's productions. There was also a trait of nationalism in the opposition against Handel, as his German birth was specifically mentioned in negative articles in the press.

As a result Handel's attention increasingly shifted to the composition of English oratorios. In order to attract audiences he introduced a new phenomenon: the organ concerto. It wasn't the first time he composed an orchestral work with a solo part for the organ. His oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, which received its first performance in Rome in 1707, contains a Sonata for oboes and strings with solo organ. Handel started to play organ concertos during the intervals of his oratorio performances in 1735. The attempt to regain his popularity seemed not to be very successful at first. A newspaper wrote that during a revival of his oratorio Esther (first performed in 1718), he "has introduced two Concerto's on the Organ that are inimitable. But so strong is the Disgust taken against him, that even this has been far from bringing him crowded Audiences."

Later in 1735 a new organ was made for the Covent Garden Theatre, which was first played by Handel during performances of Deborah. Handel's supporters were deeply impressed, as 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."

These early concertos were published by Walsh in 1738 as opus 4. As they had to be playable to a wide circle of musicians, including skilled amateurs, the publication can only give a faint idea what Handel's own performance must have been like. 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."

Recently two recordings of these six organ concertos have been released. The first is a performance by English artists who have a natural connection to the music of Handel, who has been one of the most important composers in British music history and whose music has been very popular from almost immediately after his death. The second recording is Italian, which is probably more surprising as Italian musicians and ensembles are first and foremost exploring their own rich musical past. But of all 'foreign' composers Handel was probably the most 'Italian' in style. And this could well be the reason that often Italian performances of Handel's music are better than English ones.

Let me start with the former of the two recordings. There can be no doubt that Richard Egarr has given the interpretation of Handel's organ concertos a lot of thought. This raises the expectations as the listener is curious to hear what is different - and hopefully better - than in previous recordings. It is always a bit embarrassing when the expectations are not fulfilled, and the result is rather unconvincing. And that is exactly what is the case here, I'm afraid.

To start with the basics: the playing of the score. No doubt all participants are all fine artists, but the way these concertos are played here is really not very impressive. The tempi are often unsatisfying: the andante of the Concerto in F, op. 4,4 is spot on as it isn't treated as a kind of slow movement, which often happens with andantes. But otherwise most fast movements are too slow, and the not very energetic way of playing of the ensemble makes them sound rather lacklustre and sluggish. I sorely missed clear dynamic accents and I had liked a sharper articulation; the allegro of the Concerto in F, op. 4,5 comes off best in this respect. What is basically wrong with the performances is that they are not theatrical at all, and in the case of Handel's music that is an almost deadly sin.

So what about the particularities of the interpretation? Richard Egarr puts much effort in arguing that the soloist should add a lot of ornamentation in his performance. One almost gets the impression he thinks he is the first to do so. Maybe it is true that artists never listen to the recordings of their colleagues; otherwise he would have known that Ton Koopman has done exactly the same, using the same arguments and referring to the same sources. But he practices it way better: in comparison Richard Egarr's ornaments are far less convincing, far less imaginative and sometimes outright ugly.

Problematic is also his choice of instrument. Egarr argues that there is much difference between the English organs and the instruments Handel had grown up with in Germany. No argument here, but this has been pointed out before, for instance by Peter Williams in his programme notes to the recording by Daniel Chorzempa and Concerto Amsterdam (1975). But the organ Richard Egarr is using has only four stops and is not really up to the job. The organ in Covent Garden where Handel has performed most of his organ concertos had seven stops and gave more possibilities and also a stronger sound than the portative organ used here. In particular when the ensemble plays forte the balance is unsatisfying. The use of a modified mean-tone temperament seems historically justified; I don't known whether Egarr is the first to do so. If so this is probably the only real improvement, although the differences with other performances are not spectacular.

The last concerto deserves special mentioning as Egarr also gives special attention to it in the booklet. Originally the solo part was set for harp, the autograph gives harp and lute, and a revival of Alexander's Feast, during whose premiere in 1736 it was first performed, refers to the concerto as 'for the Harp, Lute, Lyrachord and other instruments". Here the archlute is used as a second solo instrument. Because Egarr considers the organ to be "a box of recorders" he takes the freedom to drop the two parts for recorders Handel has written. Also he thinks it is appropriate to make the violins play muted throughout, although Handel prescribed it only in the first movement. This is rather strange: Egarr writes in the booklet that the publication of these concertos show "a care and attention that can only stem from Handel's own hand and involvement". Then why does he ignore Handel's careful indications in regard to dynamics in this concerto? When will interpreters stop thinking they know better than the composer?

Let's move to the second performance. In all respects the interpretation by Lorenzo Ghielmi is superior to Richard Egarr's. The performance as a whole is theatrical and dramatic - exactly those features which I missed in Egarr's recording. There are more dynamic accents, a much sharper articulation and there is great attention for the rhythmic pulse. The solos for violin and cello in the first movement of the Concerto in g minor, op. 4,3 are played much better by the members of La Divina Armonia than those of the Academy of Ancient Music.

As far as Lorenzo Ghielmi is concerned, he plays the solo parts brilliantly and in a very speechlike fashion. He may be a bit more moderate in his ornamentation, but his ornaments are simply better and more imaginative than Egarr's. He uses an Italian organ which has the kind of stops Handel had at his disposal in the Covent Garden theatre, but it is larger and produces a stronger sound than the organ Richard Egarr uses. As a result the balance between the organ and the orchestra is more satisfying. The tempi are mostly well-chosen, although the andante of the Concerto in F, op. 4,4 is too slow - here Egarr has the edge (4'17" to 5'22"). The sixth concerto is here played in the scoring of the autograph: harp and lute. Margret Köll and Luca Pianca give very fine performances of the solo parts. Of course we also get to hear the recorders here.

From what I have written one may conclude that I strongly prefer Lorenzo Ghielmi over Richard Egarr. Whereas I had no problems listening attentively to what Ghielmi and his colleages were doing I was often tempted to do other things while listening to Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music.

In short, I don't think Richard Egarr's recording is a useful addition to the catalogue. Although there is no lack of recordings of these concertos Ghielmi has done us a favour by presenting to us his view on these fine works.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Richard Egarr
The Academy of Ancient Music

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