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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Clavier Works"

Siegbert Rampe, harpsichord

rec: August 11, 2008, Abtei Marienmünster, ehem. Ackerhaus
MDG - 341 1537-2 (© 2008) (78'48")

Capriccio in g minor (HWV 483); Chaconne in G (HWV 430/Anh); Chaconne in G (HWV 435); Prelude in F (HWV 567); Sonata for a Harpsichord with Double Keys in G (HWV 579); Suite in d minor (HWV 428) [1]; Suite in F (HWV 427) [1]; Suite in g minor (HWV 432) [1]

(Sources: [1] Suites de Pièces Pour le Clavecin, 1720)

Although Handel's harpsichord works don't belong to his most frequently performed music and most harpsichordists don't include them in their standard repertoire they are available in quite a number of recordings. But it is mostly the eight large suites of 1720 which is given attention to, and the rest of Handel's repertoire for the keyboard is largely neglected. This has probably partly to do with the fact that Handel's keyboard oeuvre is rather cluttered, in which respect it is comparable to his chamber music. The fact that several pieces which name Handel as the composer are of doubtful authenticity don't make things any easier. In addition some works exist in several versions. Whoever wants to record Handel's keyboard music while at the same time trying to avoid the well-trodden paths has quite a lot of work to do. And that is exactly what the German keyboard player and musicologist Siegbert Rampe has done.

This disc is remarkable in more than one respect. First, we get here several well-known pieces in early versions. The Chaconne in G (HWV 430) is recorded here for the first time. One will immediately recognize the 'Air with variations' from the Suite No 5 in E from the set of 1720, nicknamed 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. This name was given in the 19th century, and the story associated with it is apocryphal as the early version proves which Handel wrote during his time in Hamburg. Also recorded for the first time is the original version of the Chaconne in G (HWV 435). Rampe believes this piece could have its origin in a work for keyboard and orchestra, as in its only source tutti and solo are clearly distinguished.

In addition Rampe plays some rather curious pieces which don't exactly belong to the core of Handel's keyboard music. Among them is the Sonata in G (HWV 579) which has the form of an aria with solo episodes and ritornellos. The Sonata for a Harpsichord with Double Keys in G (HWV 579) is specifically written for a two-manual harpsichord. Like most pieces on this disc it was written in Hamburg. The Prelude in F (HWV 567) is merely a chordal framework which has to be worked out by the interpreter. The Capriccio in g minor (HWV 483) is preserved without a title and is characterised by Rampe as a "two-part invention".

The two latter pieces belong to the three compositions which were written in England. The third is the Suite in d minor (HWV 428). It is part of the eight Suites printed in London in 1720. According to Rampe the other two suites recorded here are of an earlier date: the Suite in F (HWV 427) could have been written in Hamburg, the Suite in g minor (HWV 432) in Hamburg and in Italy.

Just for the repertoire alone this is a most interesting disc. But the performance is also unusual in several ways. First the tuning of the harpsichord: Rampe states that mean-tone temperament was generally used in Hamburg until the middle of the 18th century. And that is how the harpsichord in this recording is tuned. The pitch is lower than usual: a=408 Hz.

But it is the harpsichord itself which is probably the most intriguing aspect of this project. It is an instrument with four stops, divided over two manuals. Most noticeable is the presence of a 16' stop. When in the 20th century attempts were made to play the 18th-century harpsichord repertoire on the instrument for which it was written, by the likes of Wanda Landowska, new instruments were used which had several stops, including a 16', operated by pedals. These had very little to do with the original instruments of the baroque era. After World War II several builders aimed at building harpsichords which were inspired by the originals without being copies. Among them were Neupert and Wittmayr, who built harpsichords which were constructed differently from the instruments Landowska used. But they still contained a 16' stop, a practice which was justified by referring to the so-called 'Bach harpsichord' in a museum in Berlin. The connection to Bach has never been proven, though, and representatives of the historical performance practice dismissed the inclusion of a 16' as unhistorical. But more recent research has shown that several 18th-century harpsichords had indeed a 16' stop. This has resulted in copies of such instruments being built and some recordings of German keyboard music on such instruments, in particular by Andreas Staier. Here Siegbert Rampe follows his example and uses the 16' stop regularly in his performances of Handel's keyboard works.

He plays Handel's music with great technical assurance and musically persuasive. His interpretation is differentiated in that he doesn't use the 16' stop all the time. But when he does use it the sound is pretty heavy, and it needs some time to get used to it. I also felt sometimes that the use of the 16' stop makes the playing of fast passages a bit awkward and less flexible than when only 8' stops are used. But on the other hand the full and almost orchestral sound is quite impressive and lend something monumental to these keyboard works.

I would like to recommend this disc to anyone who is interested in the keyboard music of the 18th century and its interpretation. I don't dare to say that this is the way how this music should be played. There are some questions to be answered, like the acceptance and the diffusion of this kind of harpsichord in the 18th century. But, in addition to the captivating repertoire and performance, I rate this disc very highly as an eloquent contribution to the debate on how to perform baroque keyboard music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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