musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin"

Cristiano Holtz, harpsichord

rec: June 2009, Winsen, Schlosskapelle
Ramée - RAM 1004 (© 2011) (75'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist

Air in B flat (HWV 471); Minuet in g minor (HWV 434/4); Sonatina in G (HWV 582); Suite III in d minor (HWV 428) [1]; Suite V in e minor (HWV 438) [2]; Suite VII in g minor (HWV 432) [1]; Suite VIII in f minor (HWV 433) [1]

Sources: [1] Suites de pieces pour le clavecin, [I], 1720; [2] Suites de pieces pour le clavecin, [II], 1733

Handel was and is one of the most famous composers of the baroque era, and the only one whose music was still performed after his death. In modern times he has to compete with other composers, like Bach and Telemann. But his music still belongs to the most frequently performed. His oratorios have always enjoyed great popularity, and in recent decades the largest part of his operatic oeuvre has been rediscovered as well. His orchestral and chamber music regularly appear on concert programmes and on disc. There is one part of his oeuvre which is severely underexposed: his music for keyboard. Whereas the keyboard works of the likes of Frescobaldi, Froberger, Bach, Haydn and Mozart have been recorded completely, only once a complete recording of Handel's keyboard music has been released. From 1979 to 1981 the German harpsichordist and organist Edgar Krapp recorded his keyboard oeuvre on the German label Eurodisc. As far as I know these have never been released on CD.

There are several reasons for this relative neglect. The other parts of Handel's output are so voluminous and of such a splendid quality that his keyboard music is almost doomed to remain in the shadow. Another reason is the problems regarding authenticity. This sounds quite familiar as his chamber music causes many problems in this regard as well. The main reason is Handel's popularity. Publishers, in particular John Walsh, were all too keen to take profit from the large demand for Handel's music and printed editions which were anything but reliable. This was the main reason Handel requested a Royal Privilege which gave him the monopoly of the publication of his own works for 14 years. That was in 1720. The first fruit of this monopoly was the printing of the eight harpsichord suites from which three are played here by Cristiano Holtz. Their established authenticity is the main reason they belong to Handel's most frequently performed and recorded keyboard works.

Even so, their date of composition remains unclear and this has kept Handel scholars busy. It is generally assumed that these suites are compilations of pieces composed during various stages of Handel's career, most of them probably dating from before his stay in Italy. In these suites Handel never exactly adheres to the then common structure of the keyboard suite with its sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Five of them begin with a prelude, the others with an allegro, an adagio and an overture respectively. The number of movements varies: Suite VIII has five, the Suites III and VII have six. Handel incorporates elements of the Italian sonata da chiesa, as in the Suite No. 3 which includes an allegro and ends with a presto. There are French elements in the Suite III - the air - and in the Suite VII which ends with a passacaille. The German tradition is represented as well: the first two movements of the Suite VIII take the form of a prelude and fugue.

Despite Handel's announcement that he was planning to publish more keyboard works this never happened. The only other collection was not authenticated by the composer and published by John Walsh in 1733. The tracklist gives 1727 instead. I wonder where they got that date from.
This set contains seven suites and two chaconnes. Like the collection of 1720 it is a compilation of existing material. But as there are very few autographs of Handel's keyboard works and the existing autographs are undated it is impossible to decide exactly when they were written. From this collection we hear the Suite No. 5 which has only three movements: an allemand, a saraband and a unusually long jigg. The track-list gives HWV 438/3b which suggests that another version is used than the usual. The liner-notes don't give any information about this. Also included is a Minuet in g minor which is presented as a movement from the Suite I from this set. But according to the compositional catalogue on ( this minuet doesn't belong to the suite; it is catalogued there as HWV 434/4.
The programme is rounded off with two of the large number of independent keyboard pieces which have come down to us under the name of Handel.

Cristiano Holtz was born in Brazil, began to study the harpsichord at the age of 12 and later studied with, among others, Gustav Leonhardt. In 2006 he recorded suites by Johann Mattheson, who was Handel's colleague at the Hamburg opera before he went to Italy. His technique is impeccable and he deals impressively with the sometimes demanding pieces. Here and there he adds some ornamentation, but on the whole I believe he is too conservative in this respect. It is an established fact that Handel was a great virtuoso and was especially famous for his improvisatory skills. Therefore there can be little doubt that the keyboard works are merely sketches of what Handel used to play. That means that the modern performer has to do a lot to give some idea of how Handel probably played them. And Holtz doesn't do that. He just takes too little freedom in his interpretation.

There is another issue which bothers me. Holtz plays a replica of a harpsichord which was built by Christian Zell and Johann Christoph Fleischer in the first half of the 18th century (the exact date is not mentioned). It is likely that Handel's printed keyboard music was mostly played in England. That makes the choice of a German harpsichord less plausible. This particular instrument has four stops: 4', two 8' and a 16'. As far as I know only German harpsichord builders constructed instruments with a 16' stop. And it is highly questionable whether this kind of instrument was widely used considering that very few of them have been preserved. Holtz uses this stop in some of the most virtuosic pieces. These are quite noisy as it is, and the use of this stop makes them even noisier, in particular as Holtz also couples the two manuals. Moreover the noise goes at the cost of the flexibility and agility, and as a result these pieces are rather ponderous. That is the case, for instance, in the closing gigue of the Suite VIII in f minor and the passacaille which ends the Suite VII in g minor. There are other movements as well where I sometimes find Holtz' playing a bit awkward and not as fluent as one would wish.

All in all I have mixed feelings about this disc. It is admirable that Holtz plays pieces by Handel, and that he has included some lesser-known examples. There is much to enjoy in his playing, but the brilliance of Handel's music isn't fully explored and the performances are hampered by the choice of the harpsichord and the registration of some movements.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Cristiano Holtz

CD Reviews