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Hyperion Records

CDA66921/3 - Handel: 20 Sonatas Op 1
La Barre and other musicians (c1710). Robert Tournières (ascribed to) (1667-1752)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London

Recording details: Various dates
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 1995
DISCID: 880CC71B 5D0D9A1B B50DC020
Total duration: 170 minutes 32 seconds

'Here is all the 'Op 1' you could ever want, in performances which, in the present state of the art, I cannot see beaten' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

'This set gives authoritative readings, impeccable in style, dependable in text' (Gramophone)

'The performances in this attractive set are further distinguished by an interpretive sponaneity that invariably brings the music to life' (BBC Music Magazine)

'How much marvellous invention there is in these sonatas. The whole set is in fact a splendid achievement which is strongly recommended to all Handelians' (Fanfare, USA)

'Simplemente delicioso' (Scherzo, Spain)

20 Sonatas Op 1

The twenty sonatas on this recording show Handel writing for the professional musicians of his London opera orchestra; they demand considerable skill and stamina both from the soloist and the continuo. Prominent bass parts give the sonatas a contrapuntal strength and vitality, and Handel keeps the elements of display and purely musical argument in admirable balance in these works. For this reason, they are among the most attractive Baroque solo sonatas and deserve their lasting popularity.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Until the end of the seventeenth century, nearly all sonatas for a solo instrument and continuo were for the violin. The violin, of course, remained the most popular instrument for chamber music throughout the Baroque period, but it was increasingly rivalled by wind instruments. Instrument makers in Paris had produced the improved ‘Baroque’ versions of the oboe, flute and recorder in the middle of the seventeenth century, and before long composers in France and Germany began to provide solo music for them. The new woodwind instruments were not all introduced into England at the same time. The oboe and the recorder came first, with a group of French players in the early 1670s, while the transverse flute did not appear until after 1700. Until then, too, the recorder was the only wind instrument with a significant solo repertory. This was partly because amateurs had taken it up in the 1680s, and partly because the oboe remained essentially an orchestral instrument well into the eighteenth century. It was normal practice for professional oboists to double on the recorder, and to use it instead of the oboe in chamber music. The flute began to displace the recorder in the 1720s, when it suddenly became fashionable among amateurs.

Handel wrote solo sonatas for all these instruments during his long career, though until recently there was a good deal of confusion about their authenticity, dating and scoring; we still know little about why he wrote them or who originally played them. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries most musicians only knew those sonatas that appeared in the two versions of Handel’s Op 1, one supposedly published by the Amsterdam firm of Roger and the other, ‘more correct than the former edition’, by John Walsh. The two editions contain fourteen Sonatas between them, and they became the basis of volume 27 of Friedrich Chrysander’s Händel-Gesellschaft, published in 1879 with the addition of HWV379 and 371, edited from Handel’s autographs. Three more Flute Sonatas, HWV374–6, were published in volume 48 of the Händel-Gesellschaft from a Walsh anthology of 1730, but HWV375 and 376 are probably spurious, and HWV374 is an unauthorized arrangement of the Oboe Sonata HWV366. In 1948 Thurston Dart edited the Recorder Sonatas HWV377 and 367a (wrongly dividing the long 367a into two works) and the Oboe Sonata HWV357 from manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

There matters more or less rested until the 1970s, when Terence Best, David Lasocki and others began to look again at the sources. What they discovered was astonishing: the ‘Roger’ print was an unauthorized forgery, apparently perpetrated by Walsh around 1726 to circumvent the royal monopoly granted to Handel in 1720 for the publication of his works. Comparison with Handel’s autographs and other manuscripts showed that both the original editions were thoroughly unreliable: the texts were often corrupt; three of the Flute Sonatas were actually crude transpositions of recorder, oboe and violin works, presumably made by Walsh to cater for the sudden popularity of the new instrument; and four of the Violin Sonatas, HWV368 in G minor, HWV370 in F major, HWV372 in A major and HWV373 in E major, were rejected as spurious—they have been omitted from this recording. At the same time, two new Sonatas were discovered. A Flute Sonata in D, HWV378, seems to be a genuine early Handel work despite its attribution to ‘Sr Weisse’ in a Brussels manuscript, the more so because it starts with the same motif as the D major Violin Sonata HWV371 and has several ideas in common with Handel’s early F major Sonata for two recorders and continuo. More surprising is the previous neglect of the dashing little G major Sonata HWV358, which survives among Handel’s autographs in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It seems to have been written in Italy, and may possibly be for a violino piccolo, since the solo part is extraordinarily high-pitched, with the range g'–e''''.

The other fruit of the recent research into Handel’s solo sonatas is that we now know much more about their dating. With the exception of the two early works just discussed, the little B flat major Oboe Sonata HWV357 (1707–10), and the D major Violin Sonata HWV371 (c1750), they all appear to have been written in the second and third decades of the century, when Handel was primarily concerned with composing and producing Italian operas in London. This in turn suggests that they might have been written for the leading figures in his opera orchestra, such as the violinists Pietro and Prospero Castrucci and the wind players Jean Christian Kytch and John Loeillet, who were also active in London’s public concerts. At the time, all concerts featured solo vocal and instrumental items as well as orchestral pieces, and solo sonatas with continuo were the main display vehicles for virtuosos; by and large, solo concertos did not become popular in England until the middle of the century.

Handel’s solo sonatas certainly seem to belong to the sphere of the public concert and the virtuoso rather than that of domestic music and the amateur. They mostly need considerable facility and stamina from both the soloist and the continuo players. Indeed, Handel was exceptional at the time in writing bass parts that engage in dialogue with the upper part on equal terms, often using idiomatic keyboard figuration in the process. Most of the autographs specify just ‘cembalo’ for the bass part, and were doubtless often played by the composer in concerts, though there must also have been many performances with cellists looking over the harpsichordist’s shoulder in the traditional manner. The prominent bass parts also give these sonatas a contrapuntal strength and vitality that is lacking in the work of contemporary violinists such as Geminiani and Veracini, who were more interested in the genre as a vehicle for virtuosity. Handel keeps the elements of display and purely musical argument in admirable balance in these works, just as he freely mixes light-hearted dances with the standard ‘abstract’ movements of the sonata da chiesa. For this reason, they are among the most attractive Baroque solo sonatas, and deserve their modern popularity.

Peter Holman © 1995

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