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Hyperion Records

CDA66931/2 - Handel: The Eight Great Suites

Recording details: May 1994
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: February 1995
Total duration: 145 minutes 27 seconds

'The commanding nature of these performances, captured in sound of tremendous presence, cannot be denied. Nicholson captures a Handelian dignity and grandeur often forgotten, in the frenzy that informs many interpretations aspiring to authenticity… Magisterial performances of majestic music' (Classic CD)

'Superbly recorded. Highly recommended and unlikely to be surpassed in the near future' (Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

The Eight Great Suites
Prelude  [2'19]
Allemande  [4'23]
Courante  [3'00]
Gigue  [3'14]
Adagio  [2'09]
Allegro  [2'28]
Adagio  [1'24]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'15]
Prelude  [1'04]
Allegro: Fugue  [3'06]
Allemande  [4'46]
Courante  [2'03]
Presto  [5'04]
Allegro: Fugue  [3'45]
Allemande  [2'51]
Courante  [2'25]
Sarabande  [5'06]
Gigue  [1'50]
Prelude  [2'03]
Allemande  [3'28]
Courante  [2'09]
Prelude  [1'49]
Largo  [2'08]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'50]
Gigue  [2'43]
Ouverture  [5'17]
Andante  [3'22]
Allegro  [2'27]
Sarabande  [3'41]
Gigue  [1'42]
Prelude  [2'27]
Allegro: Fugue  [3'03]
Allemande  [3'20]
Courante  [2'07]
Gigue  [2'33]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
During the Classical Baroque era Italian music was conceived primarily under the inspiration of the human voice and of the voice-emulating violin, whereas French music was geared rather to the keyboard and dance. From the Renaissance onwards, the communally-minded French had excelled in this dance music and by the time of Louis XIV, ‘Le Roi Soleil’, the dance suite – with each dance Frenchified to accord with the dictates of a putative master of the world – had been accepted throughout Europe as a basic musical convention, collateral with the Italian sonata. All keyboard suites, even those of Bach fortuitously called ‘English’, are in this sense ‘French’, though by the eighteenth century the suite had formulated in music an ideal civilization which went beyond simple geographical frontiers. The same is true of the keyboard suites of Handel, that most European and cosmopolitan of the Classical Baroque masters.

Like most composers of the period, Handel was a virtuoso keyboard player, famed as an improviser. A considerable quantity of his harpsichord music was occasional and, being extemporized and strictly speaking ‘occasional’, has been lost; but in 1720, not long after he had settled in England, a collection of eight ‘Great Suites’ was issued in London. Significantly, their title page was in French – Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin, Premier Volume. This was followed in 1723 by a second volume, comprising pieces originally published in Amsterdam plus some manuscript material. The Six Fugues or Voluntarys for keyboard – either harpsichord or organ – were London-published in 1735. The suites merit their appellation ‘Great’, for they are heroic music, with much of Handel’s secular operatic panache working alongside French nobility and decorum.

Most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century suites for lute or harpsichord begin with a prelude which is an as-though-improvised loosening-up exercise for the player’s fingers. The dances which follow it are either in simple binary form or in a hybrid between binary and ternary. If the former, the first half of the structure, usually in sixteen or thirty-two bars but sometimes in twelve, modulates from tonic to dominant if in a major key, or from tonic to relative if in the minor; the second half mirrors the first symmetrically, returning from dominant or relative to tonic. If the latter, the second ‘half’ is extended, and embraces more recondite modulations in returning to its home base. An eight-bar period may, for instance, be ‘answered’ by twelve or sixteen bars, incorporating something like a da capo of the original material and figuration. However disparate in length the two sections, they preserve a civilized equilibrium, and the mirror-like quality of the second half is frequently enhanced because it opens as a linear inversion of the first section.

Compared to Bach’s, Handel’s dance music is unabashedly secular, as we would expect of a composer who ranks alongside Mozart as being supremely humanistic. Even so, humane values imply a moral hierarchy, and it may not be an accident that the dance usually placed immediately after the quasi-improvisatory prelude, the ‘German’ allemande, was by Handel’s time sophisticatedly serious: Thomas Mace described it as ‘Heavie, fitly representing the nature of the People whose name it carryeth, so that no Extraordinary Motions are used in dancing it’. The German Mattheson maintained that between allemandes danced and allemandes played there was ‘as much difference as between Earth and Heaven’. Perhaps it was this ability to get the best of both worlds that gave the allemande pride of place.

There were two types of courante, French and Italian. The ‘running’ name suggests that it was originally a quick dance, but once again by the time of Handel the metrical complexities of the French type, veering and tacking between 3/2 and 6/4, had slowed it down, a steady pulse being essential for the cross-accents to be intelligible. Considerable sophistication was implicit in the dancing of French courantes, in which two steps were taken for each three beats of the music; such refinements were further cultivated in purely instrumental courantes. Handel, given his secular vivacity, did not often favour the French courante, but preferred the ‘running’ Italian corrente, notated in 3/4 in regular quavers and semiquavers, with a minimum of the notes inégales relished by the subtle French.

The sarabande had been introduced into the French court from Spain in 1588. Transplanted into England, it became skittish, as is evident in the sarabandes of the Elizabethan virginalists and of Jacobean and Caroline composers of masque music. During the course of the seventeenth century it progressively slowed down, culminating in the ‘pathetic’ type that Couperin called sarabande tendre, or in the powerfully emotive type, derived from the aristocratic lutenists and violists, which he called sarabande grave. Either way, the sarabande tended to be the suite’s centre of emotional gravity, its majestic pulse having a slight stress on the second beat of three, with a double-dotted uplift into the next bar. The related triple-rhythmed dances of chaconne and passacaille were originally processional wedding dances (usually over a ground bass), tending to be simultaneously sensual and sacral. If used in suites they were often placed last owing to their length and imposingly ceremonial nature.

But most suites ended with a gigue, simply because they were usually cheerful, asserting social solidarity. ‘Jigs’ were the English contribution to the European consort of dances, deriving from traditional country dances; but gigues were ethnically muddled, being either (most commonly) in Anglo-Italian style notated in flowing quavers in 6/8 or 12/8, or in the French style with a frisky dotted rhythm incorporated into 6/8, 12/8, or occasionally 9/8. Handel, as one would expect, favoured the Italian type and never exploited the rigorously contrapuntal German-style gigue. Most gigues open their second ‘half’ with thematic inversion, imposing order on what might have been unbridled energy.

In the ‘average’ suite some licence was allowed in the selection of lighter dances or galanteries, placed between the high point of the sarabande and the social jollity of the gigue. The most fashionably favoured, especially by dancers, was the menuet which, in 3/4 or occasionally 3/8, had une élégante et noble simplicité, and often incorporated another dance (called a trio because it was originally in three melodic parts) in an ABA sandwich. Other semi-popular dances, such as gavotte, bourrée, rigaudon and musette, could be similarly treated, while more exotic or demotic numbers, such as loure, sicilienne, canaris, polonaise and tambourin, could deputize for the more familiar types. The occasional ‘air’ has nothing to do with the French air de cour, but probably derives from the air de symphonie par lequel débute un ballet. Handel’s suites, as befits a free-ranging European, interpret the convention of the suite very liberally. He adapts or rejects as fancy pleases, inclining to the Italian styles and to the then ‘modern’ rococo formulae more readily than do Bach or Couperin.

The Eight Great Suites
Suite No 1 in A major begins with a partially written-out version of an improvised French prelude with cascades of scales and arpeggios which exploit the instrument’s resonance as an amplified, mechanically-plucked lute. The key of A major was traditionally associated with youth and spring, and potentially with energy; Charpentier called it ‘joyeux et champêtre’. The allemande is grand, opening with scales imitated in inversion. After the modulation to the dominant and the double bar, the dotted figuration is inverted. Textures are characteristically stable and sturdy, as are those of the courante, which seems to revel in the harmonic richness which accrues from the moving inner parts. In this buoyant A major suite Handel dispenses with a sarabande and moves direct to a consummatory gigue in Italian style.

Suite No 2 in F major is closer to an Italian slow–quick–slow–quick sonata than to a French suite proper. F major was traditionally a pastoral, ‘down-to-earth’ key, but Handel’s first movement, far from being a quasi-improvised keyboard exercise, is a civilized and highly ornamented quasi-operatic aria, while the bustling allegro which follows is a vigorously Italianate two-part invention, more urban than rustic in harmonic solidity and neatness of texture. The next movement, in the relative, D minor, has the pulse of a sarabande, but it is also an operatic aria in miniature, ending with a written-out, quasi-vocal cadenza. This leads back to the tonic F major and into a powerful fugue, initially in three parts but introducing a fourth after chromatic intensification.

Suite No 3 in D minor has a prelude which is a wildly whirling toccata with a dotted-rhythm subject in which the dots may or may not be reiterated throughout the entries. A dotted-rhythmed allemande reminds us that Charpentier had described the key of D minor as ‘grave et dévot’; and a certain wistfulness, if not gravity, is preserved in the Italianate corrente. But the next movement abandons the format of a conventional suite, being an air with variations. The air itself, like that of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations, is richly ornamented, and approaches Bachian sublimity. The five variations, however, eschew this old-world formal and spiritual grace, simply taking over the air’s harmonic base and adding lyrical semiquavers for the right hand. The second variation inverts this, placing the chord sequence in the right hand, the semiquavers in the left. The third variation has melodic but sturdily metrical parts for treble and bass which define the fundamental harmonies, leaving the semiquavers to form a middle part. The fourth variation jigs the tune in 12/8, and the fifth and final variation, in broken chords, is the plainest but also the most energetic. Unlike Bach, Handel does not return to his seraphically ornate aria but whisks this climactic variation into a final presto in 3/8, aggressive in muscularity, its thrust reinforced with trills.

Suite No 4 in E minor again evades convention, beginning not with a prelude but with a fully developed fugue longer and more complex than many of the fugues Handel published as independent pieces. The subject, launched on repeated crotchets, flows into passagework intermittently riddled with chromatics and with quite far-ranging modulations. But this big piece is succeeded by a French suite consisting of the fundamental sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, all more than usually French in feeling and ornamentation.

Suite No 5 in E major is a step further up the cycle of fifths from ‘youthful’ A major and E is the sharpest (and ‘highest’) key in general use. It was traditionally associated with heaven, but in the works of Handel it would seem that paradise is firmly terrestrial. True, the free-flowing prelude, the allemande and the courante are all lucidly gracious, but Handel dispenses with a sarabande and as his finale offers a variation-set on a tune so earthy in metrical symmetry and diatonic in harmonization that it quickly won the popular title of ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Again, Handel steers aristocratic finesse towards a rawly demotic future. Though Handel’s blacksmith, benign in harmony, may attempt celestial levitation in the shooting scales of his final variation, the effect is more comic than transcendent.

Suite No 6 in F sharp minor takes us into a key problematical in Baroque tuning. As the dominant of tragic and suffering B minor, F sharp minor became for Bach a key appropriate to states of ecstasy or pain, while for Couperin it tended to imply sensuous exploration or mystical aspiration. Characteristically, Handel is more down-to-earth, though this suite is among the grandest in the cycle, with a prelude in French dotted rhythm, in four real parts, followed by a massive largo, also in double-dotted rhythm and thick in harmonic texture. The third movement is a spacious fugue making poignant use of suspensions and of sustained cadential pedal notes, while the final gigue, though conventionally frisky in a cross between Italian and French style, preserves a certain grittiness.

Suite No 7 in G minor owes its character to its key, which Charpentier had called ‘sévère et magnifique’ and which was shortly to become Mozart’s key of tragedy and consequence. But this suite is to a degree equivocal because although it starts with a pompous and circumstantial French overture, with a slow introduction complete with double dots and shooting scales which outdo Lully himself in rhetorical ostentation, the succeeding quick fugal section is not the conventional triple-rhythmed round-dance, but is in common time, and is indeed a bit ‘common’ in mood and manner – like the quick fugato from the overture to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which follows the royally tragic grandeur of the introduction with the chattering of demotic witches. Handel’s fugato has the same pounding rhythm, on the verge of chuckling risibility. The orthodox return to grandeur in the slow coda does not quite convince, and perhaps is not meant to.

After this highly theatrical overture, an Andante and Allegro (really a French allemande and Italian corrente) are discreet, consistently in two parts, one for each hand, with canonic imitations. The sarabande, more harmonic in texture, is heart-easingly lyrical, flowering into additional ornamentation in the repeats. The conventionally Italianate gigue is unpretentious, but Handel adds as finale a massive passacaille: not a series of melodic extensions over an unvarying linear ground, as in Dido’s ‘Lament’, but a set of variations over a chord sequence, beginning in diatonic homophony but increasingly chromaticized into diminished sevenths (the stock operatic ‘chord of horror’, since it consists of two interlinked and rootless tritones). Significantly, this piece is not in the triple rhythm typical of processional passacaglias (and of chaconnes and sarabandes) but is rather in a common time relating back to the fugato section of the overture. It marches remorselessly, generating increasingly virtuosic figuration. There is nothing like this in Bach, and its effect is remarkably similar to that of Handel’s monumentally public choruses in his oratorios. If this Handelian passacaille is ceremonial, it is a procession no longer of court dignitaries, but of affluent British burghers.

Suite No 8 in F minor reminds us that just as E major, being the sharpest major key in common use, was considered heavenly, so F minor, the flattest minor key in common use, was deemed apposite to infernal matters. Handel’s F minor Suite is not, however, overtly hellish and begins with a prelude in French dotted rhythm which is ‘pathetic’ rather than scary. He ballasts its pathos with a massive fugue on a rising-scale subject in symmetrical rhythm. Often he adds weight by ‘filling in’ the mounting octaves in the left hand, a corruption of linearity that Bach would not have countenanced. The open energy and ‘drive’ of this music mirror eighteenth-century man’s courage in confronting life’s threats; but the allemande and courante temper gravity with grace rather than with power. Handel does not risk an F minor sarabande, whether of the ‘grave’ or the ‘pathetic’ type, but concludes with a contrapuntal gigue in three voices, with canonic imitations to discipline the theme’s spikiness.

The Six Fugues
The Six Fugues or Voluntarys – so called because they are ‘apt for’ harpsichord or organ – were published fifteen years later than the Suites, when Handel was fifty. However, they were probably written around 1716/7 and are all classically Baroque fugues in four parts, tonally based on the Classical Baroque hierarchy of keys – tonic, dominant, subdominant, relative and (less frequently) mediant. They can hardly challenge Bach’s ‘48’ in musical potency or in contrapuntal skill, but they are splendid examples of eighteenth-century rational craftsmanship which never fail to recognize that experience may sometimes be ‘perilous’ (ex periculo, in Latin).

Fugue No 1 in G minor is basic in that its subject opens with a falling fifth, aspires upwards through a minor sixth, and then gathers physical energy in repeated quavers. Although all the fugues are ultimately in four parts, they tend to make do with three until their final stages, thus using the fourth part with rationally consummatory effect. In this first fugue the steady pulse assures sobriety, and the delayed entry of the fourth voice drives towards a cadential harmonic expansion, marked ‘Adagio’. Perhaps this suggests that human endurance may give legitimate occasion for pride. Handel’s counterpoint is usually worldly, if not mundane, with the harmonies ‘fitting in’ as though to some (humanly) pre-ordained scheme.

Fugue No 2 in G major forms a perfect foil to the piece in the minor. G major was traditionally a blissful key (of benediction, of sensuous innocence in Couperin, while Charpentier called it ‘doucement joyeux’). The subject of this Handel fugue, incorporating bouncy repeated quavers and a major triad, is radiant, the repeated notes tending even towards a perkiness to which intermittent tritonal sequences add piquancy. The fugue does not challenge the conventional Baroque hierarchy of keys, and the coda is built on a reassuring dominant pedal, over which the repeated quavers chatter into a unexpectedly grand (Adagio) peroration.

Fugue No 3 in B flat major accords with the ‘pastoral’ associations of its key. (Interestingly, Lully had sometimes used B flat major to represent anti-masque demons and hobgoblins, possibly because two flats – the flattest transposition permitted in sixteenth-century modality – were problematical in French tuning and so acquired a taint of the lower regions.) Handel’s B flat fugue is pastorally sunny, with an ‘open’ theme on a falling third and rising fourth, a motif innocently pentatonic. Rhythmic regularity is again unsullied, though stretti enhance the momentum. The modulations are conventional, except for a touch of D minor – the upper mediant, or dominant of the relative minor.

Fugue No 4 in B minor manifests Handel’s characteristic response to a key significant to the Classical Baroque age in that it symbolized harsh reality and purgatorial suffering and saw through the pomp associated with D major, its relative. Handel, in the years before the Enlightenment, used it infrequently; this fugue is more curious than superb, opening with a falling fifth which periodically returns as a refuge from chromatic incertitudes, including a passage in rising sequences. But what most salvages rational man from irrational (B minor) peril is the consistent figuration in the rhythm of three quavers followed by two semiquavers. This metrical nagging may be meant to be affirmative, but tends to wear us down. After a long dominant pedal to approach the final cadence, Handel releases himself and us in a quasi-vocal cadenza.

In response to this, Fugue No 5 in A minor proves to be far more perilous, and also more magnificent. The key was traditionally prone to melancholia, a quality preserved in Mozart’s wondrous A minor Rondo. This fugue is still in common time, but Handel, for the first time in the cycle, gives it a tempo directive (Largo), which may indicate that its outlandish subject – with falling major seventh, falling diminished seventh, and declining chromatics – should be accorded physical weight and moral gravitas; only thus will we survive the desperate chromatics which threaten to engulf us. If A major is a key of youth and jollity, this A minor is indeed its opposite, a key through which Handel precariously navigates by way of an imperturbable pulse and a defined tonal frame into which the chromatics (just) fit. This fugue subject bears a significant resemblance to that of the ‘And with his stripes’ fugue from Messiah. Handel is unlikely to be equating himself, or even mankind as a whole, with Christ, but is rather making a comment on the slings and arrows of a fortune unarguably outrageous.

After this, Fugue No 6 in C minor is solemn rather than desperate, perhaps even prophetic of the tragic darkness C minor acquired in the nineteenth-century symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. This is a tonal rather than real fugue since its subject, wriggling around the fifth, answers a semitone with a minor third. Despite a luscious passage of sequential seventh chords, the rigorously logical movement preserves human dignity and rationality in the face of fickle fortune.

The two other fugues on this recording are in the same genre as the ‘Six’, both being in common time and in four parts. The F major Fugue first appeared in a Hamburg manuscript in 1705. It has no tempo directive but has an ‘open air’ subject which suggests vivacity and élan. The E major Fugue was probably written about the same time as the ‘Six’ (1717) and has a springy arpeggiated subject which glimmers but is hardly celestial. The published ending, wavering in parallel sixths over a dominant pedal, has been dismissed as ‘inauthentic’, and replaced by a Handelian cliché, for better or worse.

Wilfrid Mellers © 1995

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