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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): "Violin Sonatas"

Julia Schröder, violin; Christoph Dangel, cello; Daniele Caminiti, lute, archlute, theorbo, guitar; Giorgio Paronuzzi, harpsichord

rec: Oct 4 - 7, 2010, Arlesheim, Reformierte Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697885782 (© 2011) (56'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist

Sonata in D (HWV 371); Sonata in d minor (HWV 359a); Sonata in G (HWV 358); Sonata in g minor [op. 1,6] (HWV 364a); Sonata in g minor [op. 1,10] (HWV 368); Sonata in A [op. 1,3] (HWV 361)

The sonatas for violin and basso continuo belong to the least frequently performed and recorded chamber music by Handel. In particular the sonatas for transverse flute and for recorder are considerably more popular. Why that is the case is hard to say. It is true that these sonatas raise many questions concerning their authenticity and the scoring as intended by the composer. But that is also the case with the sonatas for other instruments. It could well be that there are so many violin sonatas to choose from that most violinist simply overlook them. A lack of musical value can't be a reason to ignore them.

The sonatas were written over about four decades. The earliest is the Sonata in G (HWV 358) which dates from Handel's years in Italy. The scoring for the violin is questionable, and it has been suggested its primary scoring could have been for a soprano recorder. Three sonatas on the programme of this disc are from the mid-1720s: the Sonata in d minor (HWV 359a), the Sonata in A (HWV 361) and the Sonata in g minor (HWV 364a). The latter two are from a collection which was published by John Walsh as opus 1. Here the Sonata in g minor is printed as scored for the oboe, but the manuscript which has survived indicates the violin as the solo instrument. The Sonata in d minor was also part of Walsh's print, but there in a version for transverse flute, very likely not according to Handel's intentions. The Sonata in g minor (HWV 368) is again from this collection, but is considered not authentic. It is therefore mostly excluded from recordings of Handel's violin sonatas. The liner-notes of this recording don't touch the subject of authenticity and there is no reference to the possibility that this sonata may not be written by Handel at all. The disc ends with the Sonata in D (HWV 371 which dates from around 1750, and is the latest of his sonatas for violin. It contains various borrowings from previous vocal and instrumental compositions.

All sonatas follow the Corellian model of the sonata da chiesa with its sequence of four movements: slow-fast-slow-fast. The only exception is the Sonata in G (HWV 358), which has three. But the second movements are not fugues as in Corelli's sonatas, and the third movements are remarkably short, more or less transitions between the two fast movements.

The playing of Julia Schröder and her collegues is excellent, technically immaculate and underlining the often dramatic character of these sonatas. Their interpretation could have been a serious challenge for the recordings which are already on the market. But unfortunately the performers thought it was necessary to pep up the sonatas for modern audiences. In his notes about the interpretation Hans-Georg Hofmann writes that "we know very little about contemporary performances of Handel's chamber music". And he continues: "Today we can only speculate as to what contemporary performances of the sonatas sounded like. How strictly did the musicians stick to the score with its notated ornamentations? Did they improvise over the continuo, or between the movements? These are questions that we can only answer with an educated guess". Then one would expect to find some historical arguments which would provide at least some plausibility for the decisions the performers have taken. But that is not the case. They have taken the liberty to improvise transitions between various movements and even between sonatas. Whatever may have been the practice in Handel's days in this regard, improvisations between the sonatas was out of the question as it seems not very likely they have played them at a stretch. And they would have improvised in the style of the time - unlike Julia Schröder and her colleagues. Several improvisations are unstylish and refer to much later practices. I find them extremely annoying, and it makes it highly unlikely I will ever return to this disc. There are other liberties which are hard to justify, like the continuous change in scoring of the basso continuo and the playing of staccato and of flageolet tones in the opening of the last movement of the Sonata in d minor (HWV 359a).

This interpretation "effectively transports the lively character of the Handel violin sonatas to our own time", Hofmann writes. It doesn't work for me, on the contrary. What is more important, it doesn't work for Handel. Performers don't need to open up their box of tricks to make these sonatas appeal to modern audiences. They are good enough as they are.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Julia Schröder

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