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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Händel in London - Works for Organ"

Johannes Geffert, organ

rec: March 2001, London, St Mary's, Rotherhide
Querstand - VKJK 0115 (© 2002) (65'59")
Liner-notes: E/D

Concerto for organ and orchestra in F 'Cuckoo and Nightingale' (HWV 295) (arr Handel); Dettingen Te Deum (HWV 283) (arr Marsh) (We praise Thee, O God, chorus); Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63) (arr Handel) (overture; allegro; andante; marche); Messiah (HWV 56) (arr Marsh) (He shall feed his flock, aria); 9 Pieces for a musical clock; Solomon (HWV 67) (arr anon) (overture; allegro; allegro; Arrival of the Queen of Sheba); 8 Tunes for Mr. Clay's musical clock; 2 Voluntaries; Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthem No. 1) (HWV 258) (arr Marsh)

At a young age Handel was already a very accomplished organ player. In fact, his whole career could have been completely different if the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels hadn't heard him improvising at the end of a service in the court chapel at Weissenfels. In order to develop his skills even further the young Handel was sent to Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist of the Marienkirche in Halle.

If Handel had stayed in Germany he probably would have become one of the countries greatest organists, of the same stature as his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach. But Handel went to Italy instead, and later to England. There he concentrated on composing theatrical works and religious music. In both countries he became acquainted with organs which were very different from the instruments he knew from his youth in Germany. In Italy most organs had only one manual and an attached pedal.

It was during his stay in Italy that he met another keyboard virtuoso: Domenico Scarlatti. A competition with him on organ and harpsichord in the house of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome ended with the recognition of Handel's superiority at the organ. Handel was renowned for the virtuosity of his playing and was able to improvise fugues without any effort. Although he was a good violin player, the organ always remained his favourite instrument.

In England most organs were rather small as well, at least in comparison with the cathedral organs of Germany. As a rule they had one or two manuals and no pedal. It is for this kind of organ Handel composed his organ concertos. But these were not the only organ pieces he composed. On this disc we find some of the Voluntaries he wrote for the organ. And Handel also arranged some of his own orchestral works for organ. With this he seized up on the demand of the market. In England Handel became so popular that huge amounts of arrangements of his works were published. That popularity didn't fade away after his death. On the contrary, he became a kind of national monument, and his music continued to be performed in public concerts before large audiences.

In particular his vocal works, the oratorios on English texts and the anthems, were very popular. An indication of that is the fact that, whereas Handel only arranged orchestral music, others started to make arrangements of arias and choruses from his sacred vocal music. On this disc we find three examples of this practice: the opening chorus from the Dettingen Te Deum, an aria from Messiah and the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest. These were all made by John Marsh (1752 - 1828), a self-taught organist, who conducted and organised concerts, and was also active as a composer. In the foreword to his own Eighteen Voluntaries, he describes the then usual registration, which gives an interesting insight in the practice of organ playing at that time. Since the organ arrangements were meant to be used during church services Marsh didn’t hesitate to abridge them. In his arrangement of Zadok the Priest, for instance, the whole second section, where the choir enters, has been omitted.

The organ at Rotherhithe is a historical organ which was built in 1765 by John Byfield the second. Although some changes and extensions have taken place since then, its historical character has been well preserved and therefore this instrument is excellently suited to play the programme on this disc. Interesting is the presence of a 'swell': in his playing instructions Marsh incorporates the idea of a crescendo (which can be heard here in Zadok the Priest).

The German organist Johannes Geffert captures the character of the music quite well. He has followed as closely as possible the playing instructions Marsh has delivered, which makes the interpretation all the more convincing.

The booklet does give extensive information about the organ - including the original disposition and the situation at the moment (with later additions), but hardly contains any information about the music and the character of the arrangements. And the tracklist should have been more specific in regard to the pieces for musical clock and the Voluntaries recorded here.

Often the translation of liner notes in booklets leaves something to be desired. Here George Mainwaring is quoted, from his biography of Handel, which was published in 1760. It is quoted in an 18th-century German translation, probably the one by Johann Mattheson from 1761. Strangely enough that translation is translated again in English. Why wasn't the original English edition used? Then we wouldn't have seen - in the story about the contest on organ and harpsichord between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti - errors like this: "Some wanted to say that Scarlatti was better on the grand piano". The translator seems not to be aware that in the 18th century the German word Flügel - as used in the German edition of Mainwarings book - meant harpsichord.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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Johannes Geffert

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