George Frideric Handel’s keyboard music suffers neglect for two major reasons. Firstly, he is largely overshadowed by his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach whose vast catalogue of keyboard music is widely performed and recorded. It is regarded as essential study for all professional and aspiring pianists and harpsichordists. Furthermore, Bach is considered to have substantial intellectual and transcendental content denied to Handel. At present, the Arkiv catalogues lists nearly ten times the number of CDs devoted to Bach’s keyboard works as to Handel’s. Some of Handel’s Suites have only two currently available recordings. Secondly, Handel’s other music has ‘overshadowed’ his contribution to the keyboard repertoire. Listeners are more likely to turn to his Water and Firework Music , Messiah and even the operas rather than devote time to his harpsichord works.
Handel wrote a great deal for the harpsichord including around 25 suites and many smaller standalone pieces such as lessons, chaconnes, fugues and fantasias. Musicologists divide the Suites into a number of collections. Firstly there are the ‘Eight Great Suites’ (HWV 426-33) published in 1720. There were followed some thirteen years later by another six which are dubbed ‘The Second Collection’ (1733). There are also many other individual suites. The dating of all these works is fraught with difficulties. Rowland suggests that some were composed before Handel left Germany bound for Italy in 1707. The remainder were ‘probably’ written in England after he settled there in 1712. The present CD includes the last examples of the genre (Suite in D minor, HWV 447 and the Suite in G minor, HWV 452) that Handel wrote around 1739 for Princess Louise, the daughter of King George II.
The Suites themselves are different to Bach’s examples. They are designed with less concern for perpetuating the historic ‘dance’ movements. Although Handel made extensive use of these, he also introduced chaconnes, variations and fugues into his suites. The liner-notes point out that the one work the Suite in F (HWV 427), not on this CD; actually contain none of the traditional movements. Another feature of these suites is the duration. They range from Suite in G minor, HWV 451 at just under six minutes to the massive Suite in D minor, HWV 449 which is just shy of 24 minutes.
I do not intend to major on each individual Suite. The present selection is made from both the principal collections as well as the miscellaneous group. The second disc concludes with the massive Chaconne and 62 variations from Suite in G major, HWV 442. The CD is worth buying for this alone and Rowland’s playing is admirable throughout.
These suites are played on a two-manual French harpsichord ‘after Goermans’ of Paris (1750) built by Andrew Wooderson in 2005. The sound of this instrument is simply stunning: it has been superbly recorded.
Gilbert Rowland made his debut at Fenton House, Hampstead in 1970 and first appeared at the Wigmore Hall in 1973. He has given many recitals and broadcasts over the years which have established his reputation as one of the leading harpsichordists in the United Kingdom. His recordings include music by Soler, Scarlatti and Rameau.
The liner-notes, written by Rowland are most helpful. After a short overview of the genre, he gives a succinct description of each of the suites. These notes are also printed in French and German. There is a colour copy of Philippe Mercier’s (1689-1760) well-known painting of the composer.
I have not heard the first two volumes of this cycle of Suites . However, based on this present two CD I can only imagine that they will be equally successful.