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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Solo Sonatas

[I] "Complete Solo Sonatas"
Il Rossignolo
rec: Feb 23 - 26 & March 16 - 19, 2018, Marti (Pi, I), Podere Amarti
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075943662 (4 CDs) ( 2019) (4.03'40")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Spotify

Allegro for violin and bc in c minor (HWV 408); Andante for violin and bc in a minor (HWV 412); Sonata for oboe and bc in c minor (HWV 366); Sonata for oboe and bc in F (HWV 363a); Sonata for oboe and bc in B flat (HWV 357); Sonata for recorder and bc in C (HWV 365); Sonata for recorder and bc in d minor (HWV 367a); Sonata for recorder and bc in F (HWV 369); Sonata for recorder and bc in G (HWV 358); Sonata for recorder and bc in g minor (HWV 360); Sonata for recorder and bc in a minor (HWV 362); Sonata for recorder and bc in B flat (HWV 377); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in D (HWV 378); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (HWV 359b); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (HWV 375); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (HWV 379); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in G (HWV 363b); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in a minor (HWV 374); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in b minor (HWV 367b); Sonata for transverse flute and bc in b minor (HWV 376); Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in g minor (HWV 364b); Sonata for violin and bc in D (HWV 371); Sonata for violin and bc in d minor (HWV 359a); Sonata for violin and bc in E (HWV 373); Sonata for violin and bc in F (HWV 370); Sonata for violin and bc in g minor (HWV 364a); Sonata for violin and bc in g minor (HWV 368); Sonata for violin and bc in A (HWV 361); Sonata for violin and bc in A (HWV 372)

Martino Noferi, recorder, oboe; Marica Testi, transverse flute; Florian Deuter, violin; Paolo Bordi, viola da gamba; Ottaviano Tenerani, harpsichord

[II] "The Recorder Sonatas"
Stefan Temmingh, recorder; Wiebke Weidanz, harpsichord
rec: August 13 - 15, 2018, Seewen (CH), Kirche St. German
Accent - ACC 24353 ( 2019) (63'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
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anon; Fantaisie No. 1 in B flat; George Frideric HANDEL: Prelude in G (HWV 571,1); Prelude in g minor (HWV 572); Prelude in a minor (HWV 576,1); Sonata for recorder and bc in C (HWV 365); Sonata for recorder and bc in b minor (HWV 367b); Sonata for recorder and bc in F (HWV 369); Sonata for recorder and bc in g minor (HWV 360); Sonata for recorder and bc in a minor (HWV 362); Sonata for recorder and bc in B flat (HWV 377); Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Prelude in b minor (ZN 773)

Scores

George Frideric Handel has left a considerable corpus of chamber music, consisting of sonatas for a solo instrument and basso continuo and trio sonatas. They are quite popular, resulting in a large number of recordings. However, this part of Handel's oeuvre is a real quagmire of originals, adaptations and arrangements, authentications and falsifications. The track-list of the complete recording under review here includes a number of sonatas which have an additional letter to the catalogue number, indicating that they have been preserved in different versions. To what extent these versions are from Handel's pen or even in accordance with his own intentions, is hard to say. Undoubtedly, unscrupulous and commercially driven publishers played their role in this process of adaptation and arrangement as well, in particular the infamous John Walsh.

Take the Opus 1, the main printed source of Handel's solo sonatas. There are two collections with that opus number. The first was published between 1726 and 1732 by Jeanne Roger, the Amsterdam music printer. That is to say, that is what John Walsh wanted his clients to believe. In fact, he himself was the publisher. In 1732 he printed another Op. 1, which included ten of the sonatas from the 'Roger' edition, and two new items. Scholars have spent much time trying to figure out what exactly is 'authentic' Handel and which scoring he originally had in mind. The booklet to Il Rossignolo's recording sums up what is known about this subject. However, there will always be differences between recordings, witness Stefan Temmingh's recording of the recorder sonatas.

There seems to be consensus as far as the corpus of original recorder sonatas is concerned. Most recordings of these pieces include the same six sonatas included on the Accent disc. However, there are two differences with Il Rossignolo's recording. The latter includes the Sonata in G (HWV 358), which Temmingh has omitted. The booklet states: "Although some have taken it to be a violin sonata, HWV 358 (...) is written in a high range that never calls on the lower strings of the violin, avoiding its entire lower octave. It was therefore probably intended for the so-called 'flauto italiano', whose lowest note is the G above middle C. For this reason, we have included the work in our recording of the complete recorder sonatas". This option is also suggested at GFHandel.org (http://www.gfhandel.org/handel/worklist/301to400.html), where it is added that the autograph manuscript does not mention the instrument for which it was intended. The range could indeed be an indication with regard to the preferred instrument, but can hardly be concluding evidence. To me the top notes don't sound very natural on the recorder. There is another difference between Temmingh and Il Rossignolo. The former plays the Sonata HWV 367 in the version in B minor, which Il Rossignolo performs on the transverse flute; the recorder plays the version in D minor. The latter seems in line with the information at GFHandel.org.

It was a good idea to bring together all of Handel's sonatas for a solo instrument and basso continuo in one recording. This allows to discuss his entire output in this genre in its context. It also guarantees that we get all the sonatas, whereas selections often include the same - mostly the more 'popular' - pieces. This production has some additional value in that it includes some separate movements for violin and a different version of the sixth movement from the Sonata in d minor (HWV 367a). The liner-notes also provide the listener with much useful information about Handel's reworkings of (movements from) his chamber music in later compositions.

Unfortunately, there is not that much positive to say about the performances. All the performers are fine musicians, I have no doubt about that. But overall I have quite some problems with their interpretations. Martino Noferi plays both the recorder and the oboe. I like the way he plays them, for instance with regard to the sound he produces and the dynamic shading, especially on the recorder, whose dynamic range is rather limited. He also respects the difference between good and bad notes. He rightly is generous in his addition of ornamentation, but exactly here he goes overboard - not a little, but in extremis. He follows in the footsteps of some opera singers who have the bad habit of almost rewriting the entire dacapo sections of an aria. In the repeats Noferi leaves hardly untouched a note Handel has written, and as a result it becomes unrecognizable. From time to time his escapades lack logic. After a while I got seasick of the cartload of notes he pours out over the poor listener. In some of her sonatas Marica Testi does the same, although on the whole she is less extreme. However, in her case I mostly do not like the way she plays. Her tone is often rather harsh, although it has to be said that the acoustic is not helpful - more about that in a moment. Here I miss a differentiation between good and bad notes as well as dynamic shading on long notes. The slow movements are short on expression, and generally I find her performances rather straightforward, largely devoid of sensitivity.

The contributions of Florian Deuter are the best part of this production. He is an outstanding player, and delivers convincing interpretations of the violin sonatas. He is not afraid to add ornamentation, but it is never over the top. He stays within the boundaries of what is historically and stylistically tenable. Unfortunately, his performances seriously suffer from the acoustic. It is right that the performers have opted for an intimate surrounding; a reverberant church has mostly a pretty disastrous effect in recordings of chamber music. However, here we have the opposite. The acoustic is very dry, and there is no space whatsoever around the instruments. In particular the sound of the violin is never allowed to flourish, and it has also a negative effect on the sound the transverse flute produces. The miking seems also too close for comfort. The balance between the solo instrument and the harpsichord is sometimes also problematic: in some sonatas it is not present enough.

I should not forget to mention the fine performance of Handel's only sonata for viola da gamba by Paolo Biordi. Considering that this sonata is not that well-known and is not often performed and recorded, this performance is most welcome and shows all its qualities. This is Biordi's only contribution to this project. In all the sonatas the basso continuo is performed on harpsichord alone, without an additional string bass or plucked instrument, as is customary these days. I am not convinced that they are needed, and therefore this is one of the positive aspects of this recording.

But, sadly, it is one of the very few. On balance, I can't see many reasons to recommend this set of discs. Taking into account the importance of this concept, that is quite disappointing.

Considering Handel's popularity, it is surprising that many of his solo sonatas are not that well-known and not that often recorded. Especially the difference between the recorder and the violin sonatas is striking. The former belong to the core repertoire of recorder players, but the violin sonatas take a rather modest place in the repertoire for violin and basso continuo. The explanation may be that violinists have a large repertoire to choose from, and don't really need Handel's sonatas, whereas the repertoire of recorder players is more modest in size, and Handel's sonatas are among the best written in the first half of the 18th century. There are good reasons to question the modesty of the recorder repertoire, but certainly not the quality of Handel's contributions to it.

As so many recordings of the recorder sonatas are available, one may wonder what can be added to what is already on the market. Stefan Temmingh is certainly one of the most creative players of his instrument, and over the years I have encountered several of his discs which I mostly enjoyed, although I had sometimes reservations with regard to the liberties he allows himself. That is not any different here. He adds quite a lot of ornamentation; in the case of Handel, that is probably not so much a subject of debate as, for instance, in performances of Bach's chamber music. Whether one appreciates what he is doing here, is probably largely a matter of taste; however, he never goes as far as Martino Noferi. And there can be no doubt about Temmingh's skills in this department. In some cases either he or Wiebke Weidanz play a kind of 'bridge' between two movements, for instance between the first and second movement from the Sonata in B flat (HWV 377) (recorder) and between the furioso and the adagio of the Sonata in b minor (HWV 367) (harpsichord). Both the ornamentation and these 'bridges' are the fruits of improvisation. I am not convinced that this practice is founded on historical evidence. The performers also decided to play a prelude to each sonata, for which they have mostly turned to written-out pieces by Handel himself. In one case Temmingh plays a piece by an anonymous composer, and in another case he turned to the oeuvre of Henry Purcell. The Sonata in F (HWV 369) is preceded by a piece of improvisation of both artists, called Flourish. Such improvisations seem to have been quite common in the baroque era, but, as far as I know, were always played on the harpsichord.

Wiebke Weidanz takes liberties of her own in the realisation of the basso continuo. In one case she uses the 4' register, and as a result the right hand of the basso continuo moves across the recorder part, which I find rather odd. Overall, the basso continuo has often the character of an obbligato keyboard part. In the dialogue between the two artists in the booklet, Weidanz states that in Handel's sonatas "[the] bass line makes an equal counterpart to the recorder part, much more than in comparable pieces. It's opulent, virtuosic and full of variety."

Despite the many recordings of Handel's recorder sonatas in the catalogue, Temmingh and Weidanz undoubtedly represent more than just another voice in the crowd. I personally prefer performances which stay a bit closer to what the composer has written down, but in a way I can appreciate what Temmingh and Weidanz are offering here. Especially recorder aficionados will be tempted to add this disc to their collection, alongside those they already own.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

Relevant links:

Stefan Temmingh
Il Rossignolo


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