Release Date: 27 October 2023
This Da Vinci Classics double CD opens an ambitious project, featuring a total of 21 disks divided into eleven volumes (each comprising one or two CDs). The result of this monumental enterprise will be the publication of Handel’s complete works for the harpsichord.
The first two volumes, focus on a compilation of individual works; the Suites included here do not include the best known of Handel’s Suites, i.e. those printed in 1720 and which will be issued as vol. 6 of this series.
A singular fate surrounds Handel’s keyboard works, whose impressive quantity is self-evident from the number of CDs needed to record them. Handel is certainly among the most beloved classical composers, and some of his works are known even by people who would never set foot into a concert hall. And Handel was best known, in his lifetime, as a prodigious keyboard player – even more than as a composer. His virtuosity attracted the masses, who were enthralled by his bravura and his sensitivity.
From what has been just said, it would seem straightforward that Handel’s keyboard works be frequently played, deeply known and thoroughly appreciated by musicians, audiences and critics alike. This, however, is far from being the case. There is a kind of neglect surrounding these works, and this is a reason why a daring project like this one is particularly welcome and timely.
He had been familiar with keyboard instruments since his early childhood. Among his notable teachers were some of the greatest keyboardists of the era: Pachelbel, Kuhnau, and, most particularly, Zachow, in Handel’s city of Halle. Zachow was Handel’s unforgettable teacher and also an extremely expert organist. The variety of suggestions from which the boy would draw the first elements of his own musical language can be observed by studying a 1698 music book compiled by a thirteen-y.o. Handel. Here, the young man included works by his own teacher, but also by other coeval German composers whose specific traits he was keen to absorb.
Five years later, when Handel was eighteen, he travelled from Hamburg to Lübeck on August 17th, together with Johan Mattheson, who was his senior by three years. During the journey, as related by Mattheson, “in the coach we composed many double fugues – in our heads, not written down… There we played almost all the organs and harpsichords and we arrived at a particular conclusion with respect to our playing… namely, that he wanted to play only the organ and I the harpsichord”.
In fact, Handel’s fame as a performer would mainly come from his feats as an organist, even though he by no means eschewed other keyboard instruments and achieved extraordinary renown on them all.
Centuries later, however, Handel is remembered mainly for his oratorios, his opera, and his orchestral suites (Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks). Indeed, other kinds of music seem to have absorbed his imagination and his creative power to a much higher degree than harpsichord playing and writing. Moreover (and here lies an important difference with his contemporary Bach), Handel did not have the plethora of children and school students Bach had at the Thomasschule; a substantial portion of Bach’s keyboard catalogue is in fact bound to pedagogical aims and goals, and its systematization frequently reveals criteria of order and progressiveness which are rather typical for Bach.
No such order is discernible in the great majority of Handel’s keyboard works. Moreover (and here the two composers born in 1685 are most distant from each other), Bach kept writing for the harpsichord until his very last years, while Handel, who outlived him, is known to have composed most of his harpsichord works before his mid-thirties. The date by which most of Handel’s keyboard works seem to have been completed is 1720, while, to make just one comparison, the first volume of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier would be finished in 1722 and the second volume was to follow two decades later!
The works collected in this first volume comprise some Suites and some individual works, which in some cases are self-standing, in others seem to have been “dropped” from larger works (perhaps never realized).
The C-major Sonata HWV 577 is a short and not too demanding work, whose compositional structure is reminiscent of the sonatas composed by the third great musician who was born in 1685, i.e. Domenico Scarlatti. It is unpretentious in style and technique, and this, along with its “easy” key of C major, seems to suggest as its intended readership that of aristocratic dilettantes.
Another typical musical form, the A-B-A form, characterizes the F-major Capriccio HWV 481. It is certainly more daring, as concerns harmony and writing, than the straightforward C-major Sonata, although it does not venture into uncharted tonal territories as other pieces by the same name used to do.
The pair constituted by the G-minor Prelude and Allegro HWV 574 opens with a short, eight-bar Prelude, with which Handel seems to be intending to catch the listener’s attention: it is regular without being predictable, and its suggestive three-part writing seems to allude to the world of strict counterpoint. The ensuing Allegro is lively and brisk thanks to its jumpy pace with the rhythm of 3/8. It displays an interesting imitative writing whereby the bass line interacts beautifully with the soprano and the occasional middle voice.
The C-major Fantasia HWV 490 appears to find its identity as a Fantasia only halfway through the piece. The first page, in fact, seem to belong in a more regular Sonata, whilst the improvisatory style of the genuine Fantasias emerges only later. The “fantastic” element, however, is clearly discernible in Handel’s masterly handling of the spectacular and of the unexpected.
The short Suite in D minor HWV 447 is as intense and touching as it is concise. It comprises only the “compulsory” movements of the traditional Suite (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue), all of which are remarkably compact in their length and expression. However, this does not prevent both Allemande and Courante from displaying a rich counterpoint, and the Sarabande and gigue from being highly characterized in their opposing traits.
Among the other works recorded in this first volume, a particularly remarkable one is the C-major Sonata HWV 578, probably dating from the 1740s. As suggested by Terence Best, this piece was not primarily conceived for the harpsichord. Firstly, it is unusual for a keyboard sonata to be written on two staves both of which employ the treble clef. This corresponds to the piece’s tessitura, whose lowest note is the middle C – thus leaving the entire lower half of the harpsichord’s keyboard unexplored. A second version of this Sonata, instead, does go below that note and reaches a G, a fourth below; though this remains an unusual choice for a harpsichord work, yet it may represent an original transcription intended for this instrument.
Another noteworthy work in this collection is Sonata HWV 579. About it, Terence Best wrote that it is “really a fantasia on the air ‘Vo’ far guerra’ in Rinaldo”. This famous Handel scholar continues by explaining that, in the original version, “this air had an obbligato part for harpsichord, and Handel’s playing of it was one of the great attractions of the opera. In the third edition of the opera in June 1711 Walsh published the air with ‘The Harpsicord Peice [sic] perform’d by Mr Handel’, and the Sonata, which has only a slight relationship with the obbligato, is conceivably Handel’s elaboration of the idea into a virtuoso solo piece”.
CD 2 of this first volume comprises some other major works, including Suite HWV 443. Its majestic and extended Präludium is in an improvisatory style, but with rich polyphony and imitation, almost in the fashion of a concerto grosso. The Allemande is short but dense with meaning and exhibits, in turn, a deep polyphonic style. The flowing Courante is followed by a touching, expressive Sarabande with a Double, and the usual, brilliant Gigue is not the last piece: it is followed (with a new HWV number, i.e. 484) by a Chaconne on a bass line reminiscent (but in the major mode) of the Folias ground. It is furnished with 49 (!) Variations and a reprise of the initial theme.
The above features are mainly shared by Partita HWV 450, whose Prelude, however, is more improvisational in style, and whose Sarabande has a much more pronounced rhythmical identity. Unusually, the quick Gigue is followed by a concluding (and extremely simple) Minuet.
The other work on which a few words should be said is Suite HWV 453, which, in musicologist Bernd Baselt’s opinion, might contain material from (or even be a straightforward arrangement of) Handel’s lost opera, Nero – in detail, of its Overture. Nero had been staged in 1705 in Hamburg, just after the enormously successful Agrippina. Nero did not enjoy comparable fame, but still contributed to the establishment of the twenty-y.o. composer’s public figure, prior to his leaving for Italy.
Together, these pieces and all others which could not be discussed here for space limits, offer a magnificent hors d’oeuvre to the ambitious recording project they open. From the symphony of these twenty disks, the full portrait of Handel the harpsichordist will emerge in total clarity.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Fernando De Luca, born in Rome in 1961, began his musical studies at a very young age, initially dedicating himself to the organ and later to the piano, graduating in 1987 under the guidance of Velia De Vita. He also studied counterpoint and basso continuo with Mons. Domenico Bartolucci, Chapel Master in the Sistine Chapel. He graduated in harpsichord in 1992 at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome under the guidance of Paola Bernardi, obtaining the highest marks with honors.
He has always been interested in the problem of the philological interpretation of the harpsichord repertoire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries paying particular attention to the study and practice of historical tunings. From 1994 to 2003 he was guest of numerous concert institutions and performed in Italy and abroad both as a soloist and in chamber ensembles. Since 1999 he has been harpsichordist of CIMA (Italian Center of Ancient Music), with which he performs, among other things, Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Magnificat, various cantatas by Telemann and Handel’s Funeral Anthem. In 2001 he is part of the National Committee, chaired by prof. Mario Valente, for the celebrations of the third centenary of the birth of Metastasio. As a harpsichord teacher, he collaborates in the representation of two oratories based on a text by Metastasio, Salieri’s Passion of Jesus Christ, and Anfossi’s Giuseppe Ricoronato. He was also harpsichordist of the group of Baroque Academy of Santa Cecilia. He has performed in solo and ensemble concerts in Canada (2009), Germany and United Kingdom (2021), Montenegro (2013), Latvia (2014).
From 2004 to 2021 he held chair of Harpsichord at the Pierluigi da Palestrina Conservatory in Cagliari. Since 2021 he has held the same chair at the Antonio Vivaldi Conservatory in Alessandria.
He is author of numerous sonatas for harpsichord and flute, oboe, violin, viola da gamba, lute, as well as pieces of vocal music and chamber music.
He was the first to play in 1991 the harpsichord opera omnia by J.N.P. Royer and in 2006 he founded the “Sala del Cembalo del Caro Sassone”, initially conceived to carry out the online publication of the complete harpsichord work by G.F. Handel, but today it has become the largest source of recordings made by a professional harpsichordist in the world. Next to the site, a Web Radio, “la Sala del Cembalo” is taking shape with the aim of disseminating these recordings and the dissemination of themes inherent in this musical period (podcast).
He has published the 12 Suites by J. Mattheson for harpsichord only for the Bologna Harpsichord Association. To his credit he has recorded various CDs: the Suite of Nicolas Siret, the Manuscript of Bergamo / Handel / Babell and for the Brilliant Classics the entire corpus of C. Graupner’s complete work for keyboard (2021), C. Moyreau’s complete harpsichord music (2022), Charles Alexandre Jollage’s complete harpsichord music .
George Frideric Handel (b Halle, 23 Feb 1685; d London, 14 April 1759). English composer of German birth. Though consistently acknowledged as one of the greatest composers of his age, his reputation from his death to the early 20th century rested largely on the knowledge of a small number of orchestral works and oratorios, Messiah in particular. In fact, he contributed to every musical genre current in his time, both vocal and instrumental. The composition of operas, mainly on Italian librettos, dominated the earlier part of his career, and are the finest (though not the most typical) of their kind. In his later years his commitment to large-scale vocal works, usually with a strong dramatic element, found a more individual outlet in English oratorio, a genre that he invented and established.