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Hyperion Records

CDD22052 - Handel: Organ Concertos
(Originally issued on CDA67291/2)

Recording details: June 1996
St Lawrence, Whitchurch, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener & Oliver Rivers
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2005
DISCID: 8111AE19 7E126F19
Total duration: 152 minutes 43 seconds


'The great coup of this new recording … is to have secured the instrument on which the composer played. Nicholson's playing is unfailingly stylish' (The Times)

'The abiding impression is one of irrepressible tunefulness and joie de vivre … The instrument's special delight is the sweetness and delicacy of its flute stops … Here and elsewhere Nicholson plays with zest and virtuoso flair. The Brandenburg Consort match him in style and élan, while Frances Kelly is a graceful soloist' (Daily Telegraph)

'Highly recommended, not least for a glorious rendition of the Harp Concerto and the novelty of the briefest contribution of Clare College Choir in an Alleluia finale' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Incandescent music-making. Mr Nicholson, the fieriest of virtuosos, makes us remember that Handel, who wrote these pieces for himself, was an organist of legendary prowess. The Brandenburg Consort's luminous strings play with particular point and charm, thanks to Mr Goodman' (Dallas Morning News)

'Superbly played' (Organists' Review)

'Paul Nicholson's performances are musical, polished and wonderfully played and enjoyable to hear' (Cathedral Music)

Organ Concertos
Allegro  [5'01]
Adagio  [1'13]
Andante  [4'13]
Allegro  [4'22]
Adagio  [3'24]
Allegro  [3'41]
Adagio  [0'56]
Allegro  [2'03]
Allegro  [3'57]
Andante  [4'17]
Adagio  [1'05]
Larghetto  [1'51]
Allegro  [2'25]
Alla siciliana  [1'28]
Presto  [2'30]
Allegro  [5'02]
Spiritoso  [4'19]
Andante  [4'37]
Adagio  [3'42]
Largo e piano  [3'02]
Allegro  [2'03]
Ouverture  [2'10]
Allegro  [5'57]
Adagio  [5'00]
Allegro  [3'42]
Menuet  [2'14]
Gavotte  [2'04]
Pomposo  [3'31]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In late 1737 Handel boarded ship to return to England after a period of recuperation in Aix-la-Chapelle. He was returning to a London which had, effectively, turned its back on his once hugely popular operas. The 1738 opera season, the first of the twenty-five since he had settled permanently in London in which Handel had not played a central role, saw the runaway success of John Rich’s Dragon of Wantley. This ran to a record-breaking sixty-nine performances and ridiculed not only the pretensions of the Italian operatic tradition, of which Handel was undoubtedly the greatest exponent in England, but also Handel’s own opera Giustino, which had been premiered in the same theatre (Covent Garden) the previous year. Rich’s earthy characters, coarse humour and English-language libretto (rather than the more customary Italian) pandered unashamedly to a less sophisticated English public.

But Handel already had a new musical weapon up his sleeve: oratorio. The public’s rejection of his opera style in 1738 finally persuaded him to abandon any further such ventures and to devote his energies to producing oratorios. Each year, from January until Easter, he hired a major London theatre and established a season at which a new oratorio was presented (he composed nineteen between 1738 and his death) and earlier ones revived.

The possibilities of adapting oratorio to suit the tastes of a London audience had become apparent to Handel some years earlier. In 1732 he had revived a couple of theatrical masques (Acis and Galatea and Esther) which had, many years previously, been staged at Canons, the country home of his patron the Duke of Chandos (and the venue for this recording). An intervention from the Bishop of London resulted in the 1732 productions dispensing with costumes, scenery and action, but much to Handel’s surprise these performances met with astonishing success. There was still an element of spectacle in the massed chorus filling a stage, while the dramatic English-language texts (usually taken from the Bible and carefully handled to avoid any charge of blasphemy) ensured that the performances had wide public appeal.

One thing was missing, though, which Handel, ever the astute impresario, realized the public would soon demand: opportunities for individual virtuosity. In the Italian operas this had been provided by the castrati singers: men who, having had their manhood surgically removed at puberty, as it were, devoted their entire adult lives to developing astonishing vocal techniques for display on stage. Castrati singers had no place in oratorio, neither was any form of personal virtuosity considered appropriate in a religious context. The solution came from Handel’s own remarkable skills as a performer. He was considered (among those who had never heard his exact contemporary and compatriot Bach) the greatest organist of the day. The third member of that great triumvirate of composers born in 1685, Domenico Scarlatti, conceded defeat to Handel on the organ when the two were set against each other in a contest of performing skills held in Rome in late 1708, while the Earl of Shaftesbury recalled one particular incident from Handel’s journeyings across Europe: ‘In one of the great Towns in Flanders, where he had asked Permission to Play, the Organist attended him, not knowing who he was; and seem’d Struck with Mr Handell’s Playing when he began: But when he heard Mr Handell lead off a Feuge, in Astonishment he ran up to him, & embracing him, said ‘You can be no other but the great Handell’.’

It was this reputation as a dazzling organ virtuoso, his dual role as composer and impresario, and the presence of an orchestra sitting idle between the acts of an oratorio that led Handel to devise the genre of the organ concerto.

The scope for a jaunty dialogue between organ and orchestra (typified by the second movement of Op 4 No 2) and the free rein Handel could give himself in improvising extravagant solo passages meant that the organ concerto often proved a stronger draw for an audience than the oratorio itself. When Handel wished to revive a flagging oratorio he would ensure that the accompanying organ concerto was particularly prominently displayed in the advertisements. A typical programme was that produced in Covent Garden on 19 February 1736. Here, along with the premiere of Alexander’s Feast, came the cantata Cecilia volgi, a Concerto grosso in C, the Harp Concerto Op 4 No 6 and the Organ Concerto Op 4 No 1.

Working under extreme pressure – he was not only writing and rehearsing the oratorios but also administrating the whole season – Handel relied heavily on his own gifts of improvisation for the concertos. Occasionally he would hand the orchestra an old piece to play while he embellished around it on the organ, and he would leave entire movements to be improvised on the spur of the moment. Towards the end of his life, and with rapidly deteriorating eyesight, Handel relied ever more heavily on his improvisatory skills, usually dictating the barest outline to his copyist John Christopher Smith junior (whose father, Johann Christoph Schmidt, had followed Handel from Germany to England in the early years of the eighteenth century). According to Burney: ‘During the Oratorio Season, I have been told, that [Handel] practised almost incessantly; and, indeed, that must have been the case, or his memory uncommonly retentive; for, after his blindness, he played several of his old organ-concertos, which must have been previously impressed on his memory by practice. At last, however, he rather chose to trust to his inventive powers, than those of reminiscence; for, giving the band only a skeleton, or ritornels of each movement, he played all the solo parts extempore, while the other instruments left him ad libitum; waiting for the signal of a shake, before they played such fragments of symphony as they found in their books.’

Although Handel was at the organ throughout the oratorio and concerto performances, at least one other keyboard instrument was needed to provide the continuo. Normally that would be the harpsichord; a practice adopted in all the concertos on this recording. However, in Op 4 No 6 the archlute takes on the principal continuo role and Roy Goodman has decided to extend this to allow occasional participation as a joint soloist. Several oratorios required even more keyboard instruments: Deborah, Saul and, possibly, Esther each called for two organs and two harpsichords. This did not necessarily mean that the orchestra pit was awash with keyboard players since Handel made use of a contraption which allowed both organ and harpsichord to be played by one player at a single keyboard. Burney saw such a device at a concert to mark the centenary of Handel’s birth: ‘The keys of communication with the harpsichord [were] 20 feet 7 inches below the perpendicular set of keys by which the organ is usually played. Similar keys were first contrived in this country for Handel himself at his oratorios.’

The English instruments for which Handel wrote his organ concertos and on which he was such a noted exponent were very different indeed to the opulent German organs for which Bach was composing his great Preludes, Toccatas and Fugues. The English instrument was much smaller, consisting usually of just one keyboard (or manual), had fewer stops with no blazing reeds or sparkling mixtures (stops which bring into play several different pitched pipes for a single note), and made a much softer, sweeter sound – making it ideal, in fact, for accompanying a chorus and blending with an orchestra in both ensemble and solo roles: which is no doubt why the eighteenth-century organ concerto was a uniquely English genre. English organs did not possess the full independent pedal-board which was an integral feature of their German counterparts. Very rarely larger instruments boasted a few ‘pull-downs’ – stops taken from the manual but played by the feet – but these never really caught on. When a pedal-board was added to the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1721 it proved so unpopular that it quickly fell into disuse.

From about 1739 Handel started putting dynamic markings into the organ parts of his concertos (such as the quick alternation of forte and piano to create echo effects in the second movement of Op 7 No 4); this would imply that he was now writing for an organ with two manuals. Similarly it is clear that by 1740 there was a pedal-board attached to the organ at Lincoln’s Inn Fields as Handel specifies the use of pedals in Op 7 No 1. (He never repeated this experiment – pedals are not employed in any other concerto.) There is also only one occasion (the second movement of Op 4 No 4) where Handel gives detailed instructions in the manuscript as to which stops the organist should use – Open Diapason, Stopt Diapason and Flute (a sonority faithfully captured here but unavailable on most small chamber organs).

Few English organs of Handel’s time survive in their original form today. However the instrument at St Lawrence, Whitchurch, on the edge of the Canons estate to the north of London can trace its history back to the organ built by Gerard Smith for the church during Handel’s period in the employ of the Duke of Chandos who resided for at least part of each year at Canons. The rebuild of this organ by Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn in 1994 deliberately set out to re-create the organ Handel had known and played (while at the same time enlarging it to serve its contemporary purpose of accompanying church services). It is this organ which has been used in the present recording.

The first set of six Organ Concertos, known as Opus 4, was published by John Walsh of London on 4 October 1738.

Op 4 No 1 in G minor was given its first performance at the premiere of Alexander’s Feast at Covent Garden on 19 February 1736. Op 4 No 2 in B flat major and Op 4 No 3 in G minor were both performed by Handel at the revival of Esther in Covent Garden on 5 March 1735. The fourth movement of No 3 also appears as part of the Recorder Sonata Op 1 No 2.

Op 4 No 4 in F major was completed on 25 March 1735 and given its first performance a week later at a revival of Athalia at Covent Garden. In 1737 the concerto was performed in a version which concluded with the ‘Alleluia’ chorus heard on this disc. Handel subsequently incorporated this chorus into The Triumph of Time and Truth.

Op 4 No 5 in F major is a transcription of the Recorder Sonata in F major Op 1 No 11, and was first performed at the revival of Deborah in Covent Garden on 26 March 1735. Op 4 No 6 in B flat major was written as a Harp Concerto. In that guise it was first performed on 19 February 1736 along with the Organ Concerto Op 4 No 1 at the premiere of Alexander’s Feast. Walsh included it in the Op 4 set as an Organ Concerto but it is Handel’s original version with harp that is recorded here.

Capitalizing on the success of the Op 4 concertos Walsh published ‘A Second Set of 6 Concertos for Harpsichord or Organ’ in 1740. The precedence given to the harpsichord on the title page was a shrewd commercial gesture – most amateurs had access to a harpsichord, while relatively few had an organ at their disposal – but clearly these works were intended first and foremost for the organ. Only two of the works from this second set (which bears no opus number) were original organ concertos, the remainder consisting of transcriptions of the Concerti grossi Op 6.

In 1761, two years after Handel’s death, Walsh published ‘A Third Set of 6 Concertos for the Harpsichord or Organ’ as Opus 7. Handel certainly had had no intention of producing six further concertos and while some of Op 7 were original works largely put together by John Christopher Smith junior, who had intimate knowledge of Handel’s later scores, Walsh had to scrape around to find sufficient material to make six credible organ concertos.

Op 7 No 1 in B flat major was completed on 17 February 1740 and first performed ten days later at the premiere of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The fugal fourth movement is taken from a movement (originally in A major) from the Concerto grosso Op 6 No 11 while the final Bourrée is based on a theme by Gottlieb Muffat whose music Handel made generous use of in his later instrumental music.

Op 7 No 2 in A major was completed on 5 February 1743 and probably given its first performance at Covent Garden during the premiere of Samson a fortnight later. The first, second and fourth movements are each based on material by Muffat. In the manuscript a third movement is simply marked Organo ad libitum. For this recording a transcription of the Larghetto from the D major Violin Sonata is used.

Op 7 No 3 in B flat major was the last instrumental work Handel composed. It was written between 1 and 4 January 1751 and first performed after Act II of Alexander’s Feast at Covent Garden on 1 March that year at a concert which also included the premiere of The Choice of Hercules. After the first movement Handel simply wrote ‘Adagio e fuga ad libitum’ in the manuscript. On this disc the Adagio is a transcription of a movement from a G major Violin Sonata while the fugue is one of Handel’s few original organ solo works – the ‘Voluntary (or Fugue)’ in B flat from a set of six published in 1735.

Op 7 No 4 in D minor was probably assembled by Smith after Handel’s death. The first movement was composed in 1738 as a Concerto (Adagio) for two organs and orchestra. (Both here and in the last movement of Op 7 No 5 it seemed appropriate for us to supplement the bass line with a Baroque contra-bassoon, using as a precedent Handel’s instruction for ‘Basson Grosso’ with organ in L’Allegro.) The second movement, marked with the unusual tempo indication Allegro così così (similar in intent to the more familiar Allegro non troppo), dates from between 1744 and 1746. A third movement (the Prelude from the D minor Harpsichord Suite) is included on this recording, while the fourth was a great favourite of Handel and may pre-date his move to England. He re-used this material several times; in a Concerto for violin and orchestra of 1712 and as the Presto in a Harpsichord Suite of 1720.

Op 7 No 5 in G minor was completed on 31 January 1750. Handel performed it during the premiere of Theodora at Covent Garden on 16 March. The material of the fifth movement was part of the overture to Alceste and was later incorporated into the oratorio Jephtha. To the original five movements Smith added a sixth (a Gavotte) which he adapted from an earlier concerto (Op 4 No 3).

Op 7 No 6 in B flat major was clearly assembled for Walsh’s publication without Handel’s knowledge. The two outer movements originate from the Sinfonia in B flat of 1747. There is some evidence that either or both movements were played during performances of Joshua on 9 March 1748 and Susanna on 10 February 1749. Marked Organo ad libitum, the central movement on this recording is a transcription of the Allemande from the Harpsichord Suite Set 2 No 7.

Marc Rochester © 1997

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