The famous Handel keyboard suite is No 5, the one that ends with five variations on the tune 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. But, as this fine release by Driver illustrates, there is a whole spectrum of inventiveness, originality and variety throughout the eight so-called Great Suites.
To these eight works Driver adds a further two—the C minor Suite (Partita) and the short E minor Suite published in the 1730s but composed earlier—together with the majestic G major Chaconne.
The Great Suites were mostly completed in 1717 and 1718 while Handel was composer in residence to the future Duke of Chandos at his Cannons estate near Edgware in Middlesex. For some reason, the Great Suites seem not to be so omnipresent in the catalogue as the suites of Bach, although there have been some notable recordings of them on the harpsichord by Richard Egarr and Laurence Cummings.
Driver uses a modern piano, and he does so with a potent mix of discretion and vitality. The suites are full of surprises. In most of them Handel has recourse to the popular dance forms of the day, such as the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. In others, as in the F major Suite No 2, he merely uses the generic tempo indications adagio and allegro. The D minor Third Suite, like No 5, contains a theme with variations. To the G minor Suite No 7, which could end quite plausibly with the lively gigue of its fifth movement, Handel appends a grand passacaglia.
And on occasion you are suddenly aware that you have heard something before, and in a different guise: Handel, the seasoned recycler, found, for example, various homes for the final presto of the Third Suite, conspicuously so in one of his organ concertos.
Handel the organist and improviser features just as strongly in these suites as Handel the exquisite miniaturist and inspired master of counterpoint. Driver brings to it all a winning sense of style, crisply ornamented, sensitively drawing on the piano’s tonal potential for shadings of colour and alert to the rhythmic energy that Handel can generate.
To hear in succession the tiny contemplative adagio of the Second Suite followed by its bright fugal allegro and then the quasi-improvisatory organ-like prelude of the Third Suite is to appreciate just how compellingly Driver intuits the music’s rich diversity.