In the best possible sense, Handel was never predictable. To take his keyboard suites as an example: whilst one lasts a mere eight minutes, the next runs to 27; movements number typically five or six, but others have as few as three; the dance forms of tradition rub shoulders with innovative preludes, sonatas and adagios. For the four-movement suite HWV 427, dances are even dispensed with altogether, whilst the finale of HWV 443 is a chaconne with an astonishing 49 variations on one of Handel’s most popular melodies.
In all, there are around 25 extant keyboard suites. Two collections were published during Handel’s lifetime, the ‘Eight Great Suites’ of 1720 and the six suites comprising the ‘Second Collection’ of 1733. The rest are known rather modestly as the ‘Miscellaneous Suites’. Dates of composition are sometimes conjecture, but range from the first decade of the 18th century to as late as 1739.
These are the first two of likely three double-disc volumes from Scottish harpsichordist Gilbert Rowland, in marvellously detailed productions from Divine Art. Rowland’s complete recording of Antonio Soler’s sonatas on 13 CDs for Naxos was rightly met with critical acclaim. This cycle is destined to find similar degrees of approbation. Handel’s music is so overwhelmingly communicative and all-round glorious that a performer of Rowland’s calibre could almost get away with playing in gloves. In fact, he combines amazingly graceful virtuosity with original filigree and huge experience to give readings that all listeners should respond to. The two-manual period replica harpsichord (1750) has a sweet, rounded sound and action that react superbly to Rowland’s texturising touch and Handel’s illuminative imagination.
Rowland’s own notes for the trilingual booklets provide a paragraph or two of good detail in limpid language on each work. Though these sets were recorded two years apart, Rowland et al have sensitively used not only the same venue but recorded at the same time of year, giving audio that is consistent as well as generally pleasing.
Those ill-advisedly intending to invest in only one volume will have to choose between turquoise and mauve – that is, on the basis of cover colour, because both items are equally excellent in all other regards. Each album ends aptly in memorable style: volume 1 with the Suite in E, HWV 430, the last movement of which throws up one of Handel’s most popular tunes, known as the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ (albeit not to Handel). Volume 2 meanwhile finishes with the well-known and emphatic Chaconne in G – self-evidently not a suite but published in the 1733 collection.
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