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"Hamburg 1705 - Eighteenth-century works for harpsichord"

Michele Benuzzi, harpsichord

rec: Nov 28 & Dec 1, 2009, Edinburgh, Barnes Collection
LIR Classics - LIR021 (© 2010) (65'42")

Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): Partita in A; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Allegro in d minor (HWV 475); Chaconne in g minor (HWV 453); Prelude in d minor (HWV 562); Prelude in d minor (HWV 563); Prelude in E (HWV 566); Prelude in f sharp minor (HWV 570); Prelude in g minor (HWV 572); Prelude and allegro in a minor (HWV 576); Suite in d minor (HWV 437) [2]; Suite in d minor (HWV 448); Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764): Suite No 3 in D [1]

(Sources: [1] Johann Mattheson, Matthesons Harmonisches Denckmahl, aus zwölfferwählten Clavier-Suiten, 1714; [2] George Frideric Handel, Suites de pieces pour le clavecin, 1733)

In the 17th and 18th centuries Hamburg was one of Germany's main musical centres. Some of the greatest masters have worked there for some time. Johann Mattheson and George Frideric Handel were colleagues at the Hamburg Opera. Their relationship wasn't very good and their cooperation wasn't without considerable trouble. The role of Christoph Graupner is far less clear.

Only recently the Canadian harpsichordist Geneviève Soly released a disc, entitled "Handel in Darmstadt". She devotes much of her time to the work of Christoph Graupner, who spent most of his career in Darmstadt. Here his assistant Samuel Endler put together a collection of harpsichord pieces, which is today known as the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book. It contains music by Johann Kuhnau - Graupner's teacher in Leipzig -, Telemann, Graupner himself and Handel. The inclusion of Handel is remarkable as little is known about the connection between them.

In her programme notes Geneviève Soly suggests some of these compositions were given to Graupner when they both worked in Hamburg. In the article on Graupner in New Grove it is stated that he arrived in Hamburg in 1706, the same year Handel left the city for Italy. That wouldn't have given them much time to build up such a connection that makes it likely Graupner received some of Handel's keyboard works. But apparently Graupner arrived in Hamburg one year earlier, as John Barnes writes in his liner notes of this recording. If he arrived in 1705, it is much more plausible to assume that they developed a friendly relationship and that Handel my indeed have given Graupner some of his keyboard works.

John Raymond states: "What unites the three composers is the predominance in their harpsichord music of the suite or partita". That is true, but not particularly noticeable as the suite was one of the main forms of keyboard music. Despite the title of this disc not much is made of the connection between the three composers. A number of the harpsichord works by Handel date from well after he had left Hamburg, and Graupner's Partita in A is probably composed in Darmstadt. Mattheson's Suite in D is from a set of 12, printed in 1714. In what way the three composers influenced each other is left to the imagination of the listener.

As far as Handel is concerned special attention is paid here to his preludes. These could well be the result of his improvisations for which he was famous. A large number of independent preludes have been preserved. The Handel catalogue mentions 13 of them, plus four preludes which are followed by another movement. Although Handel was strongly attracted to the Italian style, in his keyboard music French influence is noticeable as well, and in particular in the preludes. These are clearly inspired by the French prélude non mesuré. That is especially the case in the preludes with sometimes extended arpeggios. Four of Handel's preludes have Harpeggio as alternative title, among them the preludes HWV 562 and 570 played here.

It is this aspect which is the most interesting part of this disc. Handel's suites have been recorded before, and so has Mattheson's Suite in D. No catalogue number is given for Graupner's Partita in A, therefore I can't check if Geneviève Soly has recorded it. It is also the preludes where Michele Benuzzi's interpretation is most convincing. The rhythmic freedom which is a feature of these pieces is well explored. But in many other pieces I am disappointed by his playing, in particular because of the way he treats rhythm and tempo. Often the dance character is hardly discernible, and as much as I am in favour of using rubato, it must never destroy the dance rhythm. Benuzzi's playing is sometimes wooden and awkward, for instance in the prelude of Graupner's Partita in A, the gigue from Mattheson's Suite in D and the ouverture from Handel's Suite in d minor. Some phrases are not clearly shaped because of a lack of caesurae. And within the suites there is too much time between the various movements, suggesting they are independent pieces rather than part of a sequence.

The programme is interesting, but the performances are flawed.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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Michele Benuzzi

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