Harpsichord & Fortepiano

This completes Gilbert Rowland’s comprehensive survey of the Handel harpsichord suites, the earlier instalment of which was reviewed by me in Harpsichord & Fortepiano, vol.17, no.1 (2012). One omission from the data provided with the earlier set can now be rectified. Rowland’s harpsichord here identified as being based by Andrew Wooderson (2005) on a two manual French instrument by Goermans (Paris, 1750). As noted in the earlier review, it is a fine instrument, with silvery, bell like timbres in the upper register and a richly sonorous bass. As before, Rowland’s changes of registration for repeats are judicious and tasteful, revealing fully the many beauties of his instrument.

Although separated by two years, the performances unsurprisingly display similar traits to those in the earlier set, although overall I sense that the playing here is a little more relaxed. The opening G Minor Suite, from the 1720 publication of “Great Suites”, provides a good illustration of both the strengths and weaknesses of Rowland’s playing. The opening, a grandiose French overture, demands and receives the strong fingerwork and precise articulation it needs, characteristics again very evident throughout the set. The following Andante is given an agreeable flow, though without quite dispelling the impression that Rowland might give the music a little more rhythmic freedom, to sometimes allow himself to ”bend” the music a little more. He in fact later provides a perfect example to himself in this respect with the wonderful opening Prelude: A dagio of HWV 433, a movement that seems to steal in on the listener from the deep, like the rising song of a siren. Here Rowland gives the dotted rhythm a beguiling, gentle swing that seems to release all its expressiveness.

As in the earlier set, we are here given two rarities in the shape of HWV 450 and HWV 444, the latter otherwise currently unavailable on CD, so far as I can see. Both are early works, most likely composed before Handel left Germany in 1707. The G Major opens with an exuberant quasi-improvisatory prelude typical of the spirited young Handel and continues with an allemande characterized by simple repose. This is one of a number of movements that occur throughout the set where I feel that Rowland, as he did in the earlier set, over eggs the pudding when it comes to ornamentation. Such things are, of course, always a matter of personal taste, but for me there are too many occasions when the performer strays too far from the original spirit of the music, or even too far from the melodic line. It is difficult to account for the neglect of the C Minor suite that means no other recordings are available. It is a five movement work that opens with a prelude and allemande that both include some rich harmonies, while the former also features surprising modulations. I suspect that with mean tone tuning it would sound even more remarkable.

There can be no doubt that the two sets make for a highly satisfying version of Handel’s suites, with strengths that far outweigh the weaker points, especially in the present set. And if you want to hear those impressive strengths at their most persuasive, listen to Rowland’s virtuoso performance of the magnificent and flamboyantly elevated Chaconne with which he brings this recording to a close. As the final floods of notes die away, one is simply left with a strong temptation to shout out “Bravo!”

—Brian Robins