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Hyperion Records

CDA68041/2 - Handel: The Eight Great Suites
Statue of Lord Macaulay (1868, detail) by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892)
Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge
Recording details: April 2013
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: May 2014
Total duration: 141 minutes 42 seconds

The Eight Great Suites
Pre-order CD by post £20.00
2CDs May 2014 Release   This album is not yet available for download
Prelude  [2'22]
Allemande  [3'50]
Courante  [2'31]
Gigue  [3'13]
Adagio  [2'30]
Allegro  [2'19]
Adagio  [1'31]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'09]
Prelude  [1'01]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'32]
Allemande  [3'46]
Courante  [1'32]
Presto  [4'25]
Allegro: Fugue  [3'21]
Allemande  [2'35]
Courante  [1'52]
Sarabande  [5'13]
Gigue  [1'48]
Prelude  [1'54]
Allemande  [4'10]
Courante  [1'49]
Prelude  [2'12]
Largo  [1'57]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'47]
Gigue  [3'00]
Ouverture  [6'07]
Andante  [3'21]
Allegro  [2'25]
Sarabande  [3'23]
Gigue  [1'35]
Prelude  [2'19]
Allegro: Fugue  [2'27]
Allemande  [2'51]
Courante  [1'50]
Gigue  [2'36]
Prelude  [1'44]
Courante  [1'50]
Gavotte  [1'03]
Menuet  [1'01]
Allemande  [2'58]
Sarabande  [3'09]
Gigue  [1'45]

Danny Driver’s recordings of CPE Bach’s keyboard works have been much admired: praised by critics as deeply stylish and revelatory accounts of eighteenth-century works on a modern piano, with Driver’s impeccable pianism constantly present. Now he turns to Handel’s ‘Eight Great Suites’, largely written when the composer was resident in Cannons, near London.

The ‘Great Suites’ are an inspired, idiosyncratic amalgam of Gallic courtly dances, Italian vocal lyricism, Teutonic counterpoint and robust English tunefulness. Whereas Bach’s keyboard suites follow broadly similar patterns, centred on the traditional French dance sequence of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, Handel’s are unpredictable, with no two suites alike in the number and ordering of their movements. There are fugues, arias with variations, Italian-style sonata movements, even (in No 7) a Passacaglia. Compared with the elaborate finish of Bach’s suites, Handel’s often give the impression of written-down improvisations. In the fantasia-like Preludes, especially, Handel hints at his own genius as extemporiser, while leaving plenty to the performer’s own imagination.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The young Handel’s genius was matched by the energy and acumen with which he pursued his own professional interests. During his triumphant Italian sojourn from late 1706 to early 1710, ‘Il caro Sassone’, as he was dubbed, had cultivated the support of a raft of wealthy, influential patrons. Such was his international prestige at the age of twenty-five that in June 1710 he landed the post of Kapellmeister to Georg, Elector of Hanover, on terms so favourable as to stretch credulity: a generous salary, plus ‘leave to be absent for a 12-month or more if he chose it, and to go whithersoever he please’. Four months later, lured by the new-found craze for Italian opera, it pleased him to travel to London, then a seething city of nearly a million inhabitants.

After the triumphant first run of his first London opera Rinaldo, premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, in February 1711, Handel departed, reluctantly, for Hanover. But he had already resolved to return to London. The pliant elector gave him permission to make the trip in September 1712 ‘on condition that he engaged to return within a reasonable time’. He never did, though as Georg knew he would succeed the ailing Queen Anne on the British throne (she died in August 1714), his Kapellmeister’s breach of contract was less reprehensible than might first appear. With his access to the most influential circles, Handel may even have been a useful source of information to the future George I.

A contemporary commentator noted: ‘His return to London was hailed by the musical world as a national acquisition, and every measure was adopted to make his abode pleasant and permanent.’ Indeed it was. In the autumn of 1712, the twenty-seven-year-old composer made London his home, staying first at Barn Elms (present-day Barnes), then at Burlington House in Piccadilly, the luxurious mansion of one of his aristocratic patrons, Lord Burlington. He quickly became the de facto resident composer of the Haymarket opera company, and a court ‘insider’. The following year Queen Anne granted him an annual pension of £200, an arrangement continued by George I. Long before he took British citizenship in 1727, Handel was being acclaimed as ‘the Orpheus of our Century’, and Henry Purcell’s undisputed successor as Britain’s national composer.

In Italy and in London Handel dazzled the cognoscenti both as a composer and as a performer. On 14 January 1707 the diarist Francesco Valesio noted that: ‘There has arrived in this city a Saxon who is an excellent harpsichord player and composer—who today displayed his prowess by playing the organ at S. Giovanni, to the amazement of everyone present.’ One of his Roman patrons, Cardinal Ottoboni, organized a keyboard trial of strength in which Handel slugged it out with the great Domenico Scarlatti: first on the harpsichord (where opinion was divided), then on the organ, where, according to Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, ‘Scarlatti himself declared the superiority of his antagonist, and owned ingenuously, that till he had heard him upon this instrument, he had no conception of his powers.’ Handel’s brilliance as an improviser quickly became legendary in England. Hearing him play the harpsichord in Oxford in 1733, the young Thomas Arne wrote that he had ‘never before heard such extempore, or such premeditated playing, on that or any other instrument’. Dr Charles Burney, who played the violin in Handel’s later oratorio performances, remarked of his harpsichord playing that ‘the tone of the instrument was so much cherished, that his fingers seemed to grow into the keys’.

Handel had composed assorted works for organ and harpsichord during his early years in Germany and Italy. But his most intensive phase of harpsichord composition was during 1717 and early 1718. In August 1717 he became composer-in-residence to James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos), at Cannons, near Edgware, wryly described by Mainwaring as: ‘A place which was then in its glory, but remarkable for having much more of art than nature [the Earl’s private chapel boasted a frescoed ceiling by Antonio Bellucci, no less], and much more cost than art … Whether Handel was provided as a mere implement of grandeur, or chosen from motives of superior kind, is not for us to determine.’ Aristocratic ornament or not, Handel composed prolifically at Cannons, producing, inter alia, the Chandos Anthems, the masques Acis and Galatea and Esther, and, perhaps as after-dinner entertainment for the Earl and his entourage, seven of the eight suites that the composer himself published in London in 1720 as Suites de pièces pour le clavecin.

By then many movements in the suites (some of which may have their origins in Handel’s early Hamburg years) had appeared in error-riddled pirated editions in Amsterdam, necessitating a riposte by the composer—and a tribute to his adopted homeland—as a preface to his London edition:

I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons because surrepticious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad. I have added several new ones [including four of the six movements of No 3 in D minor] to make the work more usefull which if it meets with a favourable reception: I will still proceed to publish more reckoning it my duty with my small talent to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a protection.

The eight ‘Great Suites’, as they became known, did indeed ‘meet with a favourable reception’. Within a few years they had been reprinted in several editions, and circulated throughout northern Europe.

By 1717 Handel was the supreme musical cosmopolitan of his age. And like the so-called ‘Grand Concertos’, Op 6, the ‘Great Suites’ are an inspired, idiosyncratic amalgam of Gallic courtly dances, Italian vocal lyricism, Teutonic counterpoint and robust English tunefulness. Whereas Bach’s keyboard suites follow broadly similar patterns, centred on the traditional French dance sequence of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, Handel’s are unpredictable, with no two suites alike in the number and ordering of their movements. There are fugues, arias with variations, Italian-style sonata movements, even (in No 7) a Passacaglia. Compared with the elaborate finish of Bach’s suites, Handel’s often give the impression of written-down improvisations. In the fantasia-like Preludes, especially, Handel hints at his own genius as extemporiser, while leaving plenty to the performer’s own imagination.

The ruminative Prelude of Suite No 1, in the traditionally bright key of A major, offers an example of Handel’s improvisatory powers. He contrasts cascading scales with block chords that invite elaboration in arpeggios. Scales, ascending and descending, also pervade the graceful, measured Allemande, a dance which by Handel’s day had moved far from its earthy folk roots. The three-part contrapuntal textures, here and in the lively, syncopated Courante (a ‘running’ dance of Italian origin that had received a rhythmically sophisticated makeover at Louis XIV’s court), exemplify what John Mainwaring called ‘the surprising fullness and activity of the inner parts’ that made Handel’s suites so tricky for the eighteenth-century amateur. The A major Suite ends with an ebullient Gigue that tosses its trilling theme gleefully between the parts.

With no designated dance movement, Suite No 2 in F major resembles a four-movement Italian sonata more than a typical Baroque suite. The beautiful opening Adagio is a sumptuously embellished Italianate aria reimagined in keyboard terms. Handel for once here leaves nothing for the player to add. Next comes a springy Allegro, counterpointing a moto perpetuo treble with an athletically striding bass, followed by a brief D minor Adagio that combines the manner of an improvisation (ending with a musing cadenza) with the grave pulse of a Sarabande. The finale is one of Handel’s characteristic feel-good fugues: less rigorous in its development than a Bach fugue, but irresistible in its melodic and rhythmic exuberance, and spiced by some juicy chromatic progressions.

The longest and most imposing of the suites is Suite No 3 in D minor. This opens with a slow–fast French overture whose darkly swirling Prelude seems to treat the harpsichord as a surrogate organ. The jauntiness of the fugal Allegro is tempered by the innate sobriety of the minor mode. After a notably pensive Allemande and a French-style Courante full of piquant cross-rhythms, the fifth movement is a theme and variations with a difference. Contrary to normal Baroque practice, the theme is lavishly decorated, and requires simplifying rather than embellishing in the first two variations. In variation four Handel turns the theme into a bounding gigue, before ending the movement in a riot of toccata-style virtuosity. The finale is a 3/8 Presto on a nagging, trilling theme that crops up elsewhere in Handel’s music, including the overture to Il pastor fido, the Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 6 and the Organ Concerto Op 7 No 4.

Suite No 4 in E minor begins with a splendidly vigorous large-scale fugue on a theme characterized by its initial three-note ‘hammer-blows’. The working-out is more rigorous than usual with Handel, the modulatory scope exhilaratingly wide. Unusually in the ‘Great Suites’, the dance movements conform to the standard Baroque sequence of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. Here Handel also follows traditional practice by basing the Allemande and Courante on the same theme, though the latter reinterprets rather than literally repeats the melody of the former. The tender melody of the Sarabande (which by Handel’s day had morphed from a fast, lascivious dance into its virtual opposite) is another transplanted opera aria, while the Gigue, as so often in these suites, draws much of its darting energy from free canonic imitation.

Suite No 5 in E major is perhaps the most beguilingly tuneful of the set. After the gently reflective Prelude we have a contrapuntal Allemande of almost fastidious delicacy and a graciously lilting Courante (here more Italian than French). The suite ends with Handel’s most famous single movement for harpsichord: a set of increasingly flamboyant variations on the sturdy, symmetrical (and, it’s tempting to add, quintessentially English) tune whose mingled earthiness and melodiousness soon spawned the nickname ‘The harmonious blacksmith’.

In keeping with the (in the eighteenth century) ‘extreme’ key, the richly textured Prelude of Suite No 6 in F sharp minor transmutes the dotted rhythms of the Baroque French Overture into music of brooding inwardness. On a ‘blind taste’ the listener could be forgiven for mistaking this searching movement for Bach. After a Largo likewise built on dense textures and dotted rhythms, the third movement is a tautly argued fugue that sets its angular main theme against a counter-subject of sustained notes across the bar line. An inveterate recycler, Handel reworked this fugue in his D minor Concerto Grosso, Op 3 No 5. The catchy, faintly cussed final Gigue, enlivened by some pungent harmonic clashes, comes closest in these suites to a rustic English jig.

The six-movement Suite No 7 in G minor opens with a French Ouverture that contrasts a slow section of sombre stateliness (not for the first time in these suites Handel here seems to evoke a massive Baroque organ) with a Presto fugue in jerky dotted rhythm—shades here of Purcell’s overtures. The Andante and triple-time Allegro, both in two parts throughout, are Handelian takes on the Allemande and Courante (the latter Italianate, devoid of French-style cross-rhythms). Next comes a Sarabande combining nobility and simplicity—a Handel speciality—followed by a bouncy three-part Gigue. Eighteenth-century players and listeners would have expected the suite to end there. Instead Handel crowns it with a magnificent Passacaille, or Chaconne, in a marching dotted rhythm, as opposed to the triple time of French chaconnes. Over a repeated chord sequence, simple at first, then chromatically intensified, the music progresses in a crescendo of surface excitement towards its coruscating conclusion.

At the furthest extreme from this heroic extroversion is the Prelude of Suite No 8 in F minor, another piece where Handel rivals Bach in chromatic inwardness. He often chose F minor in his operas and oratorios for utterances of special poignancy—in, say, the First Harlot’s aria in Solomon, or the otherworldly duet for the martyred heroine and her lover in Theodora. The second movement is a driving fugal Allegro that sets the dignified rising scales of its main subject, like a Baroque ground bass, against a sinewy counter-subject. The theatre composer is to fore in the dramatic changes of texture later in the movement. Having repeatedly defied expectation with his choice and sequence of movements, Handel ends his 1720 published collection with the traditional French dance movements, minus the Sarabande. The Courante fruitfully borrows its opening motif from Handel’s Roman Vespers Psalm, Dixit Dominus, while the Gigue, as so often, is energized by lively canonic imitation.

Unpublished until 1930, the Suite (Partita) in C minor, HWV444, dates from around 1705–6, when the young Handel was earning his living as composer-cum-harpsichordist at the Hamburg Opera. Shortly afterwards Handel revised the Allemande second movement for the incomplete Suite HWV445, in the process enriching its textures. Danny Driver has chosen the revision as more suited to the modern piano. In Handel’s manuscript the C minor Suite’s brooding, improvisatory Prelude is notated in block chords with the superscription arpeggio. After the Allemande comes an Italianate Courante, like a fast minuet, followed by a Gavotte of sober grace and a Minuet whose faint gawkiness is typical of the works the young Handel wrote before his Italian sojourn.

Handel reused the Allemande’s opening motif in the first movement of the miniature Suite in E minor, from the set of nine suites published by John Walsh (Handel’s most prolific publisher) around 1733. Walsh’s edition was largely a mopping-up operation. Some of the suites may have originated as teaching pieces for Princesses Anne and Caroline after Handel became their music teacher in 1723. Others, probably including this three-movement E minor Suite, date back to the Hamburg or early London years. The Sarabande second movement is yet another variant on the fertile Allemande motif, while the final Gigue whirls along in the unusual metre of 24/16.

As an envoi Danny Driver plays the Chaconne in G major with twenty-one variations published as ‘Suite No 2’ in the 1733 collection. This magnificent piece is Handel at his most Gallic, with shades of the clavecinistes—Rameau, Couperin—in the elaborately ornamented Sarabande theme and several of the variations. In time-honoured fashion, the figuration grows increasingly animated during the early variations. Variations 9 to 16 are in G minor, beginning with a tender contrapuntal meditation on the theme—one of Handel’s most poetic keyboard inventions. By the time the major key re-emerges in variation 17, Handelian virtuosity is again in full spate. We can imagine the composer playing this Chaconne on his colourful two-manual Ruckers harpsichord at home in Brook Street, to the astonished delight of privileged visitors.

Richard Wigmore © 2014

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