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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Recorder Sonatas

[I] "The Complete Recorder Sonatas"
Muriel Rochat Rienth, recorder; Andrés Alberto Gómez, harpsichord
rec: Oct 2014, Villa de Ves (Albacete) (ES), Ermita del Santísimo Cristo de la Vida
Vanitas - VA-08 (© 2015) (60'36")
Liner-notes: E/S/D
Cover & track-list

[II] "Handel's Recorder"
Ruth Wilkinson, recorder; Miriam Morris, viola da gamba; John O'Donnell, harpsichord
rec: Nov 2010, Melbourne, Iwaki Auditorium
divine art - dda 25124 (© 2014) (49'09")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL: Sonata in C (HWV 365); Sonata in d minor (HWV 367a) (I); Sonata in F (HWV 369); Sonata in g minor (HWV 360); Sonata in a minor (HWV 362); Sonata in B flat (HWV 377) (I); George Frideric HANDEL, arr anon (ed. J. Walsh): The Musick for the Royal Fireworks (II)


The recorder was by far the most popular instrument among amateurs in England in the first half of the 18th century. This explains the number of editions with recorder music which came from the press, not only from the pen of English composers but also by composers from overseas, especially Italy. It also explains why publishers printed music for recorder which was originally intended for other instruments, such as the violin. This way they could considerably increase sales. They usually were not too scrupulous and didn't bother too much whether the composers agreed or not.

As Handel was one of the most popular composers many sonatas by him - or under his name - were published as pieces for recorder and this has led to considerable confusion as to which sonatas were really intended for this instrument. It seems that we have come to a situation that there is more or less unanimity about this issue. Muriel Rochat Rienth recorded the "complete recorder sonatas" and these six sonatas are exactly the same as Heiko ter Schegget recorded in 2008 for MDG; he also pretended to play all the 'authentic' recorder sonatas. In comparison Ruth Wilkinson plays only four sonatas; I can't quite figure out why she omitted the sonatas HWV 367a and 377.

Handel's recorder sonatas constitute the most popular part of his chamber music output and also belong to the most popular recorder music. The number of recordings attest to that and because of that it is a challenge to interpreters to make their performances stand out among the crowd. Some go for extreme tempi; this is part of a general tendency among performers especially from Italy which I don't like and which doesn't bring us any closer to the heart of the music. Both recordings avoid any extremities in this regard.

Muriel Rochat Rienth and Andrés Alberto Gómez pay special attention to the accompaniment. Over the last decades a kind of standard scoring of the basso continuo in chamber music has developed: a keyboard instrument, a string bass and a plucked instrument. But there is little evidence that this was the standard in the baroque era. Certainly in German chamber music the participation of a plucked instrument is very questionable. It is also certainly not an established fact that harpsichord and string bass should always play together. In many collections we find the indication that the basso continuo is for harpsichord or, for instance, a cello. This is mostly interpreted as referring to the use of both but it seems quite possible to accompany a violin with a cello alone, without a chordal instrument. Recently I have heard some recordings in which some of the music is performed that way.

Rienth and Gómez have chosen the opposite option: in the six sonatas the basso continuo is played by harpsichord alone, without any additional instrument. In his liner-notes Gómez underlines the concertante character of many accompaniments in baroque music. He sees the traces of this practice in sonatas for a solo instrument and an obbligato harpsichord, for instance the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin by Bach; they could give us some idea about the way a basso continuo may have been realized. He firmly believes that there was not much of a difference between a keyboard player performing music for keyboard solo and accompanying a melody instrument. This comes to the fore in the way he realizes the basso continuo but also in his introductions to two sonatas (HWV 360 and 369) as well as some transitions between two movements. This is one of the improvisatory elements which are a feature of this recording.

A second is the ornamentation. There is a lot more here than in many other recordings. The invention and variety in Ms Rienth's ornamentation is admirable but I wonder whether she has gone a little overboard here. In fact we hardly hear a single line exactly as it was written down by Handel. I am not sure that so much ornamentation is what Handel and other composers expected, also considering that these sonatas were aimed at the market of amateurs who were probably less inventive and almost certainly didn't have Ms Rienth's skills.

That said, it certainly contributes to this recording being an interesting addition to a discography which overflows with recordings of Handel's recorder sonatas. In some movements the performers make use of rallentandos; this is a useful way to underline the theatrical character of a piece as it increases contrast and tension. There are other ensembles and artists who apply this technique but I always feel that it is used inconsistently and arbitrarily; that is also the case here. The accompaniment is another interesting part of this recording but in some movements I regretted the lack of rhythmic support.

Overall I am happy with this recording. Both artists play very well: Ms Rienth produces a beautiful sound and Gómez is her congenial partner at the harpsichord. I would have liked a more intimate acoustic, though; there is a little too much reverberation. However, no lover of recorder music should hesitate to add this disc to his collection.

Not only the number of editions with sonatas attest to the popularity of Handel's music but also the publication of arrangements of large-scale works which in their original shape were beyond the grasp of music societies of amateurs. Ruth Wilkinson offers an example of such an arrangement, published - as many collections of sonatas - by John Walsh. Whether Handel himself had anything to do with this version of his Musick for the Royal Fireworks is not known. It is quite possible that Walsh himself was responsible for this arrangement which is part of a collection of pieces "for the German Flute, Violin or harpsichord". 'German Flute' refers to the transverse flute; here the upper part is played on the voice flute. Arrangements of music by Handel were very common; one of the most renowned arrangers of instrumental and vocal music by Handel - in this case for harpsichord - was William Babell. He was strongly criticized for his practices by Charles Burney, and not without reason. But this arrangement of Handel's Fireworks Music is quite good. It is the most interesting part of this disc as the sonatas are well known.

That would not be a problem per se as I have indicated in my assessment of the previous disc but in this case the interpretation offers no new insights or perspectives. There is nothing wrong with the performances: Ruth Wilkinson and her colleagues play very well and I especially like her ornamentation, but the performances by Rienth and Gómez are considerably more theatrical. Moreover, the Vanitas disc is more interesting in regard to performance practice. In addition, a playing time of a little over 49 minutes is hardly acceptable; I can't imagine that the artists could not find something which would fit into the programme.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Muriel Rochat Rienth
Ruth Wilkinson

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