Handel’s published Eight Great Suites of 1720 are well known. There is another rather sloppy volume from 1733, The Second Collection, with eight more suites and a few individual pieces. Gilbert Rowland’s set here, “Volume 3” of a now-complete cycle of three two-disc packages, stays mostly outside that core. It has one suite from 1720 (426 in A), one from 1733 (440 in B-flat), and eight other suites that were not published in Handel’s lifetime. Some of those suites are fragmentary, with only two or three movements. In a sense, this release cleans out the bottom drawers of the Handel keyboard repertoire, giving us music that is not readily available elsewhere. Some might argue that its obscurity is deserved, as there is plenty of formulaic note-spinning here —Handel at less than his best. It can’t all be wonderful.
Collectors will already have their own favorite recordings of the Eight and perhaps some of the Second Collection. I am happy with Jory Vinikour’s and with Michael Borgstede’s 4CD set of those two collections. Both Borgstede and Vinikour project a more improvisatory delivery and sensitively-varied touch than I hear from Rowland here. Their styles give us Handel as a master of stagecraft. Rowland seems to be caught up with attention at the note level, rather than the phrase level of larger gestures. He sometimes slows down for technical difficulties and then speeds up again when the music becomes easier. He also shows a bit of clumsiness with dotted rhythms and uses a crude-sounding but unidentified temperament that doesn’t handle sharps very well. I noticed a few finger slips and some questionably-chromatic sliding ornaments that would have benefited from retakes and editing. Rowland could have used a lighter touch in courantes and sarabandes to bring out the hemiolas and to give a stronger sense of dance. In short, I wanted to hear more flair, grace, and drama in his performances.
Still, I don’t want to quarrel too much with this. Rowland has completed his six-disc project, and there is some strong, heroic playing in this final set. He takes all the repeats and uses some enterprising embellishments. The Chaconne in G (422), a 17-minute piece with 62 variations, is remarkably exciting here as the grand conclusion. Borgstede omitted this “monotonously simple” chaconne from his set, saying in his booklet that he doesn’t like this “obvious sin of Handel’s youth” well enough to play it. For collectors who do want Handel’s scraps, or to finish Rowland’s complete series, here they are.
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