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Hyperion Records

CDH55324 - Handel in Hamburg
Stadt Hamburg in der Elbe Auen (c1700). Anonymous
AKG London
(Originally issued on CDA67053)

Recording details: December 1997
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: January 2012
Total duration: 62 minutes 42 seconds


'A marvellous disc' (The Independent)

'A highly entertaining collection. Delightful rarities from the young Handel' (Classic CD)

'The disc is warmly commended' (Fanfare, USA)

Handel in Hamburg
Movement 9: Coro  [1'17]

Handel arrived in Hamburg in 1703, aged eighteen. He spent four years in the city and wrote several works for the town's opera house. Hamburg opera was a rather eclectic beast at the time, drawing on Italian and French language and instrumental style alongside the native German. Handel fell happily into this genre; this CD brings together a selection of the delightful orchestral music (which tends to be in the French style) that Handel wrote there, some of it recorded for the first time.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
George Frideric Handel arrived in the city of Hamburg in the spring or early summer of 1703 at the age of eighteen. He had been trained by F W Zachow, the leading composer of his home town Halle, had studied law at the University of Halle, and had served a year as the organist of that town’s Calvinist cathedral. According to the Hamburg composer, singer and theorist Johann Mattheson, who became his friend, he was already ‘strong at the organ’, but ‘knew very little about melody’: ‘he knew how to compose practically nothing but regular fugues’. Hamburg quickly broadened Handel’s musical outlook. Then as now, it was an important commercial and cultural centre and possessed the only commercial opera house in Germany, founded in 1678. Handel obtained a post as a violinist in the opera orchestra, and quickly came under the influence of Reinhard Keiser, the leading Hamburg opera composer. By the beginning of 1705 he had written two operas for the opera house, Almira and Nero, first performed on 8 January and 25 February respectively. Handel subsequently wrote a third opera for Hamburg, though for some reason it was not performed before he left for Italy in the autumn of 1706; it was staged at the Hamburg opera house in January 1708 as two separate works, called Florindo and Daphne.

The Hamburg opera style was remarkably eclectic. Like some of Keiser’s operas, Almira has a libretto in a mixture of Italian and German, and its music mixes Italian, German and French elements in more or less equal measure. The French influence is largely confined to the orchestral music: Hamburg operas tended to have spectacular ballets in the French manner, and the Hamburg orchestral idiom was largely modelled on Lully’s writing for the French court orchestra, the Vingt-quatre violons. Keiser’s operas contain a good deal of Lullian orchestral writing, and Johann Sigismund Kusser, his predecessor at the Hamburg opera house, published orchestral suites in the French style and was one of the most prominent members of the group of German composers known today as Les Lullistes. This album brings together a selection of the delightful orchestral music in the French style that Handel wrote in Hamburg, some of it recorded for the first time. Following the practice of French orchestras of the time and their German imitators, we have used large bass violins tuned in B flat on the bass line instead of the more modern Italianate combination of cellos and double basses, and we have assumed that oboes and bassoons should play in the more vigorous movements even where they are not specified. The continuo section, of two harpsichords and two theorbos (whose players also employ archlutes and baroque guitars on occasion), is typical of that used in opera houses around 1700.

If, as is usually assumed, Handel began his career as an orchestral composer with Almira, then his debut was remarkably assured: its French Ouverture is one of the most daring, bravura examples of the genre, with elaborate written-out tirades (rushing scales) and unexpected changes of pace and harmonic direction. It is followed by a selection of dances from the opera: the next five movements, a Courante, a Bourrée, a Menuet for two oboes and bassoon, a Rigaudon and a graceful Rondeau, come from a ball scene at the end of Act I, the Sarabande and the concluding Chaconne are the dances of Spanish men and women in Act I, while the Gigue is a ‘Dance of Charlatans’ in Act III. If it is true that Handel ‘knew very little about melody’ when he came to Hamburg, he must have learned remarkably quickly; these dances already have a delightful sureness of touch, and several of them were returned to again and again in later works. The first half of the Bourrée is familiar to us from the Water Music, while the Sarabande is the earliest member of a family of pieces that includes the famous ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo (1711). In the surviving score, prepared for Telemann’s 1732 Hamburg revival of the opera, some of the dances lack their inner parts, which I have supplied for this recording.

Until recently it was thought that the music for Florindo and Daphne was entirely lost, but Bernd Baselt showed in 1983 that a group of orchestral dances in a manuscript from the Aylesford collection (now in the British Library) comes from them, and that a second Aylesford manuscript associates keyboard versions of three of the dances with the early Overture in B flat, HWV336. Thus it is possible to assemble a substantial orchestral suite from the fragments. The selection recorded here begins with the overture (partly reused in II trionfo del Tempo), followed by a Sarabande in the ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ mould, a Gavotte, a Menuet, a lively Allemande enclosing a Bourrée for two oboes and bassoon, another dance called Menuet that really seems to be a wild polonaise, another Allemande with an irresistible motif that suggests a peasant stamping dance, a minuet-like Coro (probably an instrumental version of a chorus), and a delicious third Allemande, this time enclosing a Rigaudon for two oboes and bassoon. Again, one can only marvel at the young Handel’s gift for memorable turns of melody and harmony, and his unerring ear for orchestral sound.

The Suite in G minor, HWV453, only survives in another Aylesford keyboard manuscript, dating from the 1730s, but scholars are agreed that it comes from Handel’s Hamburg period—Bernd Baselt suggesting that it is the overture for Nero—and the lack of idiomatic keyboard figuration strongly suggests that it was originally written for orchestra; I certainly found it easy to score up for four-part strings with two oboes and bassoon, adding solos for two violins in the concluding Chaconne. The first section of the overture is related to the equivalent movements of the Italian sacred cantata ‘Donna che in ciel’ and the opera Agrippina (1709), while, as we might expect, there are a number of fleeting similarities between the dances and numbers in Almira.

The Oboe Concerto in G minor also probably dates from Handel’s Hamburg period, and seems to be his first essay in the Italian concerto form, though it has a Sarabande in the French style instead of a proper slow movement. The last movement is the earliest version of one of Handel’s most popular and memorable pieces, best known from the Organ Concerto in G minor, Op 4 No 3.

Handel wrote his opera Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria, commonly known as Rodrigo, for Florence; it was probably first performed there in November 1707. The work in general represents a turning-point in Handel’s composing career, though the extended overture is still largely in the Franco-German style, and a number of scholars have suggested that it began life as an independent work, written in Hamburg before he left for Italy. To complicate things further, all the movements except the concluding Passacaille were used in London in January 1710 as a suite for Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, though Handel was still in Italy at the time and it is unlikely that he knew of the production or the subsequent publication of the music. It certainly makes a highly effective concert suite, with a series of delightful dances sandwiched between one of his most concisely effective overtures and the striking and elaborately scored Passacaille, with its brilliant violin solo. This movement is certainly a spectacular farewell to the world of the Hamburg opera and its Francophile orchestra.

Peter Holman © 1998

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