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Hyperion Records

CDA67083 - Handel: Trio Sonatas

Recording details: September 1998
St Michael's Church, Highgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: February 2000
Total duration: 63 minutes 12 seconds

'An excellent disc' (Gramophone)

'Very engaging sonatas performed stylishly and with lively spirit by Convivium … well worth exploring.' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Unashamedly fine performances. The recorded sound and balance is masterful, and I can happily recommend this to Handelians (even if the music is by someone else) and chamber music fans alike. It's a real pleasure.' (Early Music Review)

'Attractive and well-written works, definitely worth recording … The performances are vivacious and stylish. Hyperion's recording is excellent, and this fascinating disc should appeal to anyone with a taste for the byways of the Baroque.' (International Record Review)

'Performed with style and an engagingly playful spirit by Convivium.' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Decidedly convivial Handel from Convivium' (Classic CD)

Trio Sonatas
Adagio  [2'00]
Allegro  [2'43]
Adagio  [2'15]
Allegro  [2'27]
Affettuoso  [1'20]
Vivace  [2'24]
Adagio  [2'04]
Allegro  [1'46]
Largo  [1'34]
Allegro  [3'34]
Adagio  [2'11]
Alla breve  [2'02]
Andante  [2'18]
Allegro  [3'59]
Adagio  [2'03]
Allegro  [1'45]
Affettuoso  [1'22]
Allegro  [3'33]
Adagio  [2'03]
Allegro  [3'44]
Andante  [3'32]
Allegro  [2'16]
Largo  [2'33]
Allegro  [2'34]

The six trio sonatas for oboe, violin and continuo that make up the majority of this disc were long believed to be Handel's earliest surviving compositions, written when the composer was about ten years old. They are works of astonishing maturity and inventiveness for one so young, and twentieth-century scholars have cast doubt over their authorship, although this issue is unlikely ever to be resolved. What is clear is the quality of the music, which alternates slow movments of noble dignity with fast movements displaying quick-witted high spirits and contrapuntal interplay. The other Sonata on this disc, No 8 in G minor, was composed around 1720 and is a work of greater maturity and textural variety, with a mixture of elegant pathos and striking thematic richness.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The set of six trio sonatas which make up the bulk of this recital have had a tortuous history. The first written reference to them is in Charles Burney’s In Commemoration of Handel, published in 1785 to celebrate the centenary of the composer’s birth. According to Burney, the sonatas were serendipitously discovered by Hugh Hume, Earl of Marchmont, during a visit to Germany some time in the late 1720s or 1730s. On his return to England Marchmont presented them as a gift to his friend and flute teacher Carl Friedrich Weidemann, flautist in Handel’s opera orchestra. Weidemann is said to have shown the sonatas to Handel, who reportedly leafed through them and exclaimed with wry amusement: ‘I used to write like the Devil in those days, but chiefly for the hautbois, which was my favourite instrument.’

Apparently fuelled by the composer himself, the notion was born that these were in fact Handel’s earliest surviving compositions, written during his boyhood in Halle. At the head of his own copy, now in the collection of the British Library, Weidemann wrote: ‘The first Compositions of Mr Handel made in 3 Parts, when a Schoolboy about Ten Years of Age, before he had any Instructions, and then played on the Hautboy, besides the Harpsichord.’ For over a century after Handel’s death Weidemann’s copy was presumed lost, before being unearthed by the pianist and Handel scholar William Cusins in the music collection of Buckingham Palace. When Friedrich Chrysander published the works in his Complete Handel Edition as ‘Six Sonatas for Two Oboes and Bass’, he took his cue from Weidemann’s inscription and assigned them to Handel’s eleventh year, citing their ‘richness and freedom of invention’ and ‘mastery of counterpoint’ as proof of the young composer’s extraordinary precocity.

During the twentieth century, however, Chrysander’s resounding certainties were undermined by scholars who began first to question the dating of the sonatas and then to cast doubt on their very authenticity. Following the lead of the German scholar Hugo Leichtentritt in the 1920s, many authorities simply could not accept that they were the work of a ten- or eleven-year-old. In his Handel biography of 1966 Paul Henry Lang wrote that ‘… on the basis of the score it is impossible to accept Chrysander’s assumption. These are very good compositions, showing a maturity that no eleven-year-old child ever possessed … Handel’s typically active and sensitive bass line is there, and the pathos of the slow movements is persuasive. But what would be most disconcerting—if these works were indeed composed by an eleven-year-old—is the concentration, the formal security, and the cleanness of texture.’

While the stylistic evidence is always likely to remain inconclusive, studies of the paper and the copyist’s handwriting suggest that the sonatas originated in north Germany (the paper was manufactured at a Hanover mill) during the first few years of the eighteeth century. If Handel is indeed the composer, then it would seem he wrote them not as a callow schoolboy but as a university student in Halle, after his intensive studies with Friedrich Zachow, or in Hamburg, where he arrived as an eighteen-year-old in 1703. In recent decades, though, Handel’s authorship of the sonatas has come under fire. The lack of an autograph has inevitably aroused suspicions, as has the original copyist’s assumption that the works were for two oboes and bass, whereas the style and compass of the second ‘oboe’ part—and even the existence of double stopping at the end of the first movement of the E flat sonata, No 3—clearly suggest a violin. And if Handel did indeed acknowledge the sonatas when Weidemann showed them to him, it is not impossible that his memory was playing tricks after a period of some thirty years. Yet another point made against their authenticity is that Handel never seems to have quarried from them for other music, as he did from almost all of his authentic early works.

Whatever their authorship—and Handel’s is unlikely ever to be proven either way—the sonatas contain much appealing, solidly crafted music. The composer certainly reveals impressive contrapuntal credentials, even if the fugues are hardly worked through with the rigour and cumulative force of J S Bach. Following Corelli’s example in his famous trio sonatas of the 1680s, all six sonatas are cast in the Italian sonata da chiesa pattern—slow, fast, slow, fast. If some of the writing is a shade stiff and awkward—both the melodic lines and (pace Paul Henry Lang) the basses tend to lack the mature Handel’s breadth and fluidity—the slow movements often have a noble dignity, while the fugal faster movements are full of spirited, quick-witted instrumental interplay. One of the finest sonatas is No 2 in D minor, with its solemn initial Adagio, its catchy second movement in the style of a gigue—a dance featured elsewhere in the set—and its F major Affettuoso, built, like so many other movements here, on canonic imitation and making expressive play with chains of suspensions. Other highlights include the stately opening Adagio of No 5 in G—a foretaste here of the later Handel—the delightfully skittish faster movements of No 4 in F, with their witty cut-and-thrust between oboe and violin, and the elegiac B minor Affettuoso of No 6, another movement of a type that Handel would make richly his own.

Although the balance of probability is here more in Handel’s favour, there is also doubt about the authorship of the trio sonata ‘No 8’ in G minor. Chrysander found the manuscript of this sonata—again, not in the composer’s hand—in the Landesbibliothek in Dresden, together with its companions in F and E; and since their appearance in the Complete Handel Edition they have usually been dubbed the ‘Dresden Sonatas’. If the G minor sonata is by Handel—and both its style and its thematic affinities (in the first and third movements) with two of the other Op 2 trio sonatas would suggest that it is—it probably dates, like the Op 2 sonatas, from the years around 1720, and perhaps from the composer’s visit to Dresden during the summer of 1719. Like the other works on this disc, the G minor sonata adopts the sonata da chiesa form, with alternating slow and fast movements. Again, there is much use of canonic writing, though the textures now tend to be more varied, moving easily between strict imitation, freer imitative writing and homophonic passages, with violin and oboe in thirds or sixths. The two slow movements, with their elegant pathos, are more suavely Italianate in style, less obviously Teutonic, than in the other trio sonatas recorded here, while both faster movements have notably irregular main themes. That of the fugal second movement is particularly striking, a (for Handel) typically sprawling, unpredictable affair comprising several distinct motifs which are then skilfully and entertainingly developed in turn.

Richard Wigmore © 2000

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