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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Concerti"

Holger Gehring, organ
Baroque Orchestra of the Kreuzkirche Dresden
Dir: Holger Gehring

rec: Oct & Nov 2015, Dresden, Kreuzkirche
Querstand - VKJK 1522 (© 2015) (64'26")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 4,2 (HWV 290); Concerto for organ and orchestra in F, op. 4,5 (HWV 293); Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 7,3 (HWV 308); Concerto for organ and orchestra in g minor, op. 7,5 (HWV 310); Deborah, oratorio (HWV 51) (overture)

Luise Haugk, Robert Matthes, oboe; Eva-Maria Horn, bassoon; Anne Schumann, Friederike Lehnert, Almut Schlicker, Amber McPherson, Christiane Gagelmann, Anke Strobel, Adela Drechsel, Elisabeth Starke, violin; Klaus Voigt, Heide Schwarzbach, Caroline Kersten, viola; Juliane Gilbert, Uta Büchner, cello; Ulla Hoffmann, Thomas Grosche, violone; Stefan Gottfried, harpsichord

The title of the present disc has the simple title "Concerti", leaving us in the dark about exactly what kind of concertos are performed. A closer look at the tracklist on the rear side reveals, that we get four of Handel's organ concertos. The programme opens with the overture to the oratorio Deborah.

This opening makes much sense, as the organ concertos are closely connected to the oratorio. Things didn't get Handel's way in the early 1730s. 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. In an attempt to turn the tide Handel started to focus on the composition of oratorios in English. In order to attract audiences he decided to perform organ concertos during the intervals. The fact that Handel acted as the soloists was an asset, as he was highly reputed for his skills at the instrument. During his time in Italy he had been involved in a contest on the harpsichord and the organ with Domenico Scarlatti, and whereas the latter was the most convincing performer at the harpsichord, Handel came out as the best organist of the two. As any organist of the time, he was also able to improvise. More than that, he was known as a brilliant improviser, and this explains why he left several moments in the concertos open to be filled in by the soloist.

The printed editions by John Walsh therefore only give a faint idea of what Handel's own performances 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." How, then, modern performers should try to recreate at least something of those performances? The present production includes a booklet with details about the approach of the soloist, Holger Gehring, in his interpretation of these concertos.

The performance practice of Handel's organ concertos regards several aspects. Firstly, the solo instrument. Sometimes performers use small chamber organs, with only a few stops. However, it is known that Handel used a larger organ, which was specially built and which included more stops than most chamber organs. The Kreuzkirche in Dresden owns a horizontal organ, which was inaugurated in May 2008 and which has ten stops, divided over one manual and pedal. Its construction is inspired by 18th-century organs, which have been found in convents in southern Germany. It can be used in various pitches and temperatures; Gehring decided to use a modified meantone as was common in England in Handel's time. There is nothing new here. Larger organs have been used before in recordings of Handel's organ concertos, for instance by Daniel Chorzempa (with Concerto Amsterdam), and Richard Egarr made use of a meantone temperament.

Secondly, ornamentation is one of the main aspects of historical performance practice. In most cases, playing only what is written down or printed is simply wrong. Obviously, recording a performance with ornamentation is against the practice of the time as well, but that is a different matter; it is basically unsolvable and the result of a habit which is typical of our time. Or maybe not: Gehring is inspired by the ornamentation as can be found in some of Handel's organ concertos as they were recorded at the Holland Barrel organ, which is part of the Colt Clavier Collection in Kent, England. This is not new either: Egarr made use of the same source.

There is some confusion here as Egarr and Gehring both mention the role of John Christopher Smith, Handel's companion and secretary during the last years of his life. Egarr states that Smith may have programmed the concertos as recorded by the Holland Barrel organ, whereas Gehring connects him to another barrel organ, the so-called Bute Barrel organ, once owned by James Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. This mechanical clock does not exist anymore, but "[the] playing time for all the music included on the barrels was provided in minutes by John Christopher Smith junior for the creation of the barrels in 1762. (...) Additional metronome markings have been established from the timing instructions for the individual movements which can also be carried over to similar movements."

Two things are notable: the very fast tempi and the density of the ornamentation. The question is: do these sources give us any correct information about Handel's own ornamentation and tempi? We know the timings of several oratorio performances, and these suggest high tempi, which are not reproduced in any modern performance. As far as I know questions regarding Handel's tempi in such cases have not been satisfyingly solved as yet. There seems to be reason to believe that Handel preferred very fast tempi, but whether the tempi of the barrel organs reflect his own practice is impossible to say. It has to be taken into account, that mechanical instruments cannot be compared to any instrument played by real people of flesh and blood. On InstantHarmony I found various articles, written by David Lasocki and Eva Legêne, from which one may conclude, that it is too easy to simply turn to mechanical instruments and imitate the ornamention found there. "Our study of the ornaments in Handel's cantatas has shown us that his rhythms may partake in what we may term "rhythmical progression" - either accelerando or rallentando." Even if we take into account that one cannot simply copy vocal ornamentation in performances of instrumental music, there can be little doubt that in both genres the tempo was mostly not rigidly held, as someone like Jed Wentz has so often argued. From that perspective the barrel organs can give us some clues, but it seems not right to use them as models to be copied in regard to tempo and ornamentation. Lasocki and Legêne write: "We hope to have shown that the surviving examples of the composer's own ornamentation are infinitely more skillful than the barrel organ ornaments." And they then go on referring to a harpsichord piece with Handel's own ornamentation. "Handel's movement has rhythmic variety and flexibility, a cantabile line, craftsmanship, and artistry - features singularly lacking in the repetitive and unimaginative barrel organ transcriptions." Gehring also turned to Babell's arrangements of Handel arias; he uses the arrangement of the aria 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo as the starting point for his improvisation of the adagio in the Concerto in B flat, op. 7,3. Babell's arrangements are intended for the harpsichord, and can only be applied to the organ with some restraint. Moreover, his arrangements did not meet universal approval; someone like Charles Burney did not assess them positively, noticing a lack of taste and expression.

The reader may conclude, that I am rather sceptical about Gehring's (and others') attempts to more or less 'reconstruct' Handel's own performance practice in regard to tempo and ornamentation. Let me add the conclusion of the article by Lasocki and Legêne I have quoted several times: "[When] you feel at home in Handelian style, you can work towards the goal we advocate: being able to improvise good inventions through the composer's ears." This seems to make good sense.

Let me add that Gehring and the orchestra deliver rather good performances. They have realised their intentions convincingly. The organ is a very nice instrument, and well suited for the job. There are two problems, though. There is quite some ornamentation from the oboes and the violins in the tutti sections, which I find questionable and which tend to obscure the musical discourse and damage the transparency. The latter problem becomes even worse due to the reverberant acoustic of the Kreuzkiche. It seems unlikely, that the organ used here can be moved to a different venue. However, especially because Gehring opted for fast tempi - on the basis on the barrel organ examples - the reverberation causes serious problems. Let us not forget that Handel played his organ concertos in a theatre, which has a much drier acoustic. Fast tempi are much easier to realise under such circumstances than in a reverberant church like the Kreuzkirche.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Holger Gehring

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