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Handel & Scarlatti: Harpsichord works

[II] George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Suites pour clavecin"
Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
rec: Jan 2020, Haarlem
Mirare - MIR480 (© 2020) (67'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fugue in c minor (HWV 610); Suite in A (HWV 426); Suite in F (HWV 427); Suite in d minor (HWV 428); Suite in e minor (HWV 429)

[II] "Händel - Scarlatti"
Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
rec: Jan 2020, Haarlem
Mirare - MIR560 (© 2021) (68'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Il pastor fido (HWV 8a) (overture, arr Pierre Hantaï); Suite in d minor (after HWV 436-438); Suite in E (HWV 430); Domenico SCARLATTI (1695-1757): Sonata in D (K 443); Sonata in e minor (K 147); Sonata in g minor (K 12); Sonata in g minor (K 546); Sonata in A (K 24); Sonata in A (K 429); Sonata in B flat (K 16)

[III] George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): "Cara sposa - Mr. Handel's delight on Music & Love"
Le Petit Concert Baroque
rec: Oct 2007, Vienna, Kartause Mauerbach (library)
fra bernardo - fb 2033970 (© 2020) (78'50")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & liner-notes

Ariodante (HWV 33) (overture; Il tuo sangue ed il tuo zelo; sinfonia; musette I/II; Scherza infida; battaglia); Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351) (overture); Rinaldo (HWV 7) (overture; adagio; gigue; prélude; Cara sposa; Venti turbini); Teseo (HWV 9) (Deh serbate, o giusti Dei); Water Music: Suite No. 1 in F (HWV 348) (overture; adagio e staccato; allegro; andante)

Chani Lesaulnier, Nadja Lesaulnier, harpsichord

Rinaldo (HWV 7):
Cara sposa
Philippe Jaroussky, alto; Ensemble Matheus/Jean-Christophe Spinosi
rec: Jan 2006, Vienna, Konzerthaus
Rinaldo (HWV 7):
Lascia ch'io pianga
Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte/Roberto Zarpellon
rec: Jan 2015, Bassano del Grappa, Duomo

Scores Handel
Scores Scarlatti

It may be the richness and variety of repertoire which explains why harpsichord players do not that often turn to Handel's harpsichord suites when putting together a programme for a concert or CD recording. There is just so much wonderful music: the English virginalists, Frescobaldi, Froberger, Bach, Couperin, etc. etc. In the booklet to Pierre Hantaï's recording of suites by Handel, the relative neglect of his harpsichord works by the greatest masters of modern times is explicitly connected to the views of Gustav Leonhardt, the 'pope of early music'. "The Dutch master obstinately gave Handel the cold shoulder; his music remained a blind spot in a vision that was otherwise as panoramic as the Baroque keyboard repertoire itself. The ill-informed pupil who brought a suite from the 1720 volume to Leonhardt's class was soon set straight in a few irrevocable words. Why waste time on this stuff when the music of Bach requires so much time and such unremitting efforts?" It is questionable, however, whether the author of these lines, Gaëtan Naulleau, does justice to Leonhardt's motives. "There could be no salvation, in the eyes of the Calvinist Leonhardt, for the composer who only dreamt of opera". Whether Leonhardt was a Calvinist - or considered himself as such - is debatable, but he certainly was not against opera. He even recorded some, and was, for instance, interested in the operas of Monteverdi. It seems to me that his problem with Handel was that he thought that counterpoint played too little of a role in his oeuvre. He considered Handel's music superficial, which has nothing to do with opera.

Given Leonhardt's negative attitude to Handel, it is not without irony that one of his most prominent pupils, Pierre Hantaï, devotes an entire disc to his harpsichord works, and at the same time recorded a programme in which Handel figures alongside Domenico Scarlatti, a composer Leonhardt certainly held in high esteeem. He could argue that Bach seems to have had no problems with Handel at all, although one wonders how much of the latter's output he knew. However, he obviously had a broader view than many of his admirers today.

One thing is important to keep in mind. Handel and Bach were different personalities and worked in different contexts. One should not listen to Handel with 'Bach ears', and one should not expect from Handel something that the composer never intended to deliver. Whereas most of Bach's instrumental music was never published, and intended first and foremost for performances with his family, friends and pupils, Handel was very much a 'public' composer, whose music was printed in the interest of public performances by music societies and by the growing number of musical amateurs.

Handel was born an opera composer and felt immediately at home in the heartland of opera, Italy. His operatic skills come to the fore in his entire oeuvre, from sacred vocal works to chamber music. That is only emphasized by the fact that he often reused previously-written music, including material from his operas, in instrumental music, such as sonatas and concerti grossi. In his keyboard music we meet the great improvisor. The organ concertos as they were printed only give a hint of the way Handel himself may have performed the solo parts. In his harpsichord music we may get a more clear impression of his brilliance. Even so, the performer who just plays what has been written down, misses the point. Any interpreter needs to add something - or, in the case of Handel, even quite a lot - in order to bring Handel's music to life and to show its full value. In that respect Hantaï does not disappoint. He recorded seven discs with sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, in which he showed his exuberant side, which for some, who only knew his Bach performances, may have come as a surprise. In his Handel disc he follows the same line. He delivers brilliant performances, which attest to the quality of Handel's harpsichord works. When I had finished listening to this disc I hoped that Hantaï would continue to record some Handel, in particular the remaining suites from the 1720 collection.

That has not entirely materialized: whereas the first disc included the first four suites from that set, on the next disc reviewed here Hantaï plays the fifth suite - the most famous one, as it ends with the variations generally known as 'The Harmonious Blacksmith' - but not any other. He rather turns to the second set, which was printed in 1733. He put together a suite of his own, consisting of pieces taken from three of the suites in this set. The suite's common structure is kept intact: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. A menuet with variations is inserted between the last two movements.

Whether Handel and Scarlatti have been recorded side by side on one disc before I don't know, but it seems a logical move, since they were not only contemporaries, but their paths crossed several times, and they admired each other's skills at the keyboard. The best-known story is their contest on organ and harpsichord in Rome in 1708. Handel's first biographer John Mainwaring also mentions a meeting in Venice during Carnival. A third meeting could have taken place in 1719, when Scarlatti probably visited England, where his brother Francesco lived. However, Naulleau refers to his visit as a fact, but Malcolm Boyd, in New Grove, is more cautious: "It has never been established whether he did in fact intend to travel to London, or indeed whether he actually went (...)". Whatever is the case, Handel certainly knew Scarlatti's sonatas, as they were very popular in England. One of his greatest promoters was Thomas Roseingrave, who published a collection of Scarlatti's sonatas in 1739. Another admirer was Charles Avison, who arranged a number of sonatas to concerti grossi. Whether Scarlatti knew Handel's keyboard works is hard to say, but he certainly knew about the latter's own skills as a keyboard player.

The programme recorded by Hantaï is quite fascinating, as it illustrates the similarities and differences between the two composers in their writing for the keyboard. Handel preferred the genre of the suite, whereas Scarlatti confined himself to sonatas in one movement, which often show the influences of Iberian folk music. The harpsichord is often treated as a kind of percussion instrument. However, Hantaï also shows a different and more lyrical side of Scarlatti, especially in the Sonata in g minor (K 546), which has the character indication cantabile. All the different aspects of the keyboard writing of both composers comes off to great effect in Hantaï's performances. I hope that he continues his Scarlatti project and is going to delight us with more Handel.

He opens the programme with his own transcription of the overture to Handel's opera Il pastor fido. Keyboard transcriptions of instrumental music for different scorings or of vocal music, including opera arias, were quite common at the time. In France Jean Henry d'Anglebert was one of the first who transcribed music from operas by Lully for harpsichord. In England it was William Babell who followed in his footsteps with brilliant transcriptions of music from operas by Handel. These did not find universal approval. The music historian Charles Burney was quite harsh in his judgment, when he stated that Babell "acquired great celebrity by wire-drawing the favourite songs of the opera of Rinaldo, and others of the same period, into showy and brilliant lessons, which by mere rapidity of finger in playing single sounds, without the assistance of taste, expression, harmony or modulation, enabled the performer to astonish ignorance, and acquire the reputation of a great player at a small expence... Mr Babel ... at once gratifies idleness and vanity." It has been suggested that Babell's arrangements could give us some idea of Handel's own performance practice, but there is serious doubt about it.

Le Petit Concert Baroque specializes in transcriptions, and the disc with the title 'Cara sposa' gives a good impression of how they treat the material, in this case from the pen of Handel, who takes a key role in their repertoire. The two harpsichordists open with movements from the Water Music and close with two sections from the Music for the Royal Fireworks. In between are instrumental movements and arias from three of Handel's operas: Ariodante, Rinaldo and Teseo. The two former operas are among Handel's most famous and most frequently performed and recorded. The transcriptions include some of the most beloved arias. In comparison, Teseo is less known; from this work only one aria is taken.

One won't find here the extravagancies of Babell, but there is certainly no lack of brilliance. It is all done very well, and these transcriptions - for two harpsichords, in contrast to Babell's for one keyboard - are tasteful and musically entirely convincing. Chani and Nadja Lesaulnier play copies of instruments by Ruckers and Taskin respectively, which suit the music well.

The programme is embraced by arias in the original scoring from Rinaldo. I find this rather odd, as if the harpsichord transcriptions can't stand on their own feet. There is nothing wrong with the performances; on the contrary: Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and Philippe Jaroussky are in excellent form, and their performances are among the best I have heard. Even so, these arias are not the reason to purchase this disc.

On an editorial note: Bernhard Trebuch, the owner of the label, should stop filling the booklet with an 'interview' with the composer, which seems to reflect his own opinions rather than what we know about Handel's views. I rather prefer some information about the music and, in this case, also the procedure of transcription by these two harpsichordists.

Anyway, this disc deserves a unequivocal recommendation to any lover of Handel's music.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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