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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Eight Great Harpsichord Suites

Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2019
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Release date: November 2021
Total duration: 153 minutes 40 seconds

Published under Royal Privilege in November 1720, Handel's Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin rapidly gained in popularity across Europe. Better known these days as the 'Eight Great Harpischord Suites', they are here performed on an instrument similar to that for which Handel composed them.

This new recording revisits George Frideric Handel’s monumental Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin—subsequently known as the Eight Great Harpsichord Suites as well as his Chaconne in G major and some world première recordings of Handel’s superb arrangements of operatic arias and ouvertures which were specially reworked and ornamented by Handel for the harpsichord.

This album was devised and performed by Bridget Cunningham, Artistic Director of London Early Opera, as part of a series of Handel recordings with Signum Classics to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first publication of these works on 14 November 1720. Cunningham displays dynamic virtuosity and wonderful embellishments, revealing the song-like beauty of the harpsichord and championing the view that Handel’s dramatic keyboard writing demands more recognition, since he was widely admired as a harpsichordist and organist throughout his working life and habitually composed, arranged, improvised, taught and directed operatic performances from the harpsichord.

Significantly, this music was recorded on a Johannes Ruckers-style double-manual harpsichord copy built by Andrew Wooderson (Neidhardt temperament, 1732) similar to the instrument for which Handel composed them. Handel played a variety of ‘state of the art’ harpsichords during his lifetime and in 1720, when these suites were published, an inventory by the composer J C Pepusch showed that the Earl of Carnarvon, who resided at his magnificence mansion Cannons (near Edgware), where Handel lodged, owned a double-manual Ruckers harpsichord with a virginal built into one side as well as several other keyboard instruments. Later on, at Brook Street, Handel owned a large Ruckers harpsichord that he bequeathed to his assistant and copyist, John Christopher Smith, Jr.

Although known today above all for his oratorio Messiah (and his oratorios in general), as well as his operatic music, Handel elicited wide admiration as a harpsichordist and organist from his contemporaries. He taught the young members of the royal family to play the harpsichord, entertained friends and visitors by playing the harpsichord and even, travelled from London to Ireland with an organ in tow (see the album Handel in Ireland). The famous painting of him by Philip Mercier, appropriately depicts him composing at a single-manual English-style harpsichord.

The background history
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) initially trained in Halle, Saxony, under the composer Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, gaining acquaintance with the works of Alberti, Froberger, Pachelbel, Krieger, Kerll, Ebner and Strungk. Since no autographs exist of Handel’s early keyboard works composed before 1712, it is not possible to date accurately the large number of pieces surviving in non-autograph eighteenth-century copies despite the stylistic evidence provided by the ‘Almira’ cadence and various other features of his earlier compositional style that have been identified and described by leading Handel scholars such as Terence Best, Donald Burrows, John Roberts and Anthony Hicks (see the Handel Collected Documents, Cambridge ed. by Burrows, Coffey, Greenacombe and Hicks).

After working in Hamburg, Handel travelled to Rome, where a contemporary diarist, Francesco Valesio, wrote on 14 January 1707:

There is lately arrived in this city a Saxon who is a most excellent player upon the harpsichord and composer of music and who today made great pomp of his virtue in playing upon the organ in the church of San Giovanni to the amazement of all.

A silk-merchant, Denis Nolhac (in Voiage Historique et politique de Suisse, d’Italie et d’Allemagne, 1737), was invited to hear Handel play the harpsichord and afterwards suggested that many Italians had 'strange ideas about the power of the Devil and musicians'. Nolhac commented: 'Handel was a Saxon, and therefore a Lutheran, that made them suspect that his skill was supernatural. I even heard some saying that holding on to his hat had something to do with it.' He advised Handel to dispel these rumours by releasing the hat that he had been holding awkwardly under his arm and continuing to play even better than before (the translations are by Professor Donald Burrows).

Travelling to many centres across Italy, Handel enjoyed access to some of the finest harpsichords and organs possessed by its wealthy and influential patrons. He met many leading musicians including Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Arcangelo Corelli and the soprano Margherita Durastanti, for whom Handel later wrote many of his solo cantatas. The first Handel biographer, John Mainwaring, relates that Handel and Domenico Scarlatti entered into a musical contest at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome. Despite common agreement that they shared the victor’s palms on the harpsichord, Scarlatti generously acknowledged the Saxon’s superiority on the organ and was so struck by Handel’s style of playing that he followed him throughout Italy.

It is not known what music Handel performed on such occasions, especially since he possibly improvised. Despite the wealth of music he composed during his period in Italy, when he accumulated a vast stock of music that he would often revisit during his later life, there is not much surviving evidence from there of keyboard keyboard composition—possibly only the Larghetto from the Sonata in G minor, the Concerto and Andante in G and the Sonata for Harpsichord with Double Keys (see Handel in Italy Volume 1 and Volume 2).

Handel’s reputation was by now firmly established. In June 1710 he became Kapellmeister to Georg, Elector of Hanover, on unusually favourable terms. Besides a generous salary, he enjoyed ‘leave to be absent for a (period of) 12-months or more if he chose it, and to go whithersoever he please’. Although Handel had composed assorted works for organ and harpsichord during his early years in Germany and Italy, there is no evidence that he composed new keyboard music while in Hanover. Only a short while after arriving there, he was seduced by the new-found craze for Italian opera in London, a prosperous city with nearly a million inhabitants, which became his next port of call.

After the triumphant premiere of his first London opera, Rinaldo, at the Queen’s Theatre, in the Haymarket, in February 1711, Handel returned, reluctantly, to Hanover, but he had already resolved to revisit the metropolis. The pliant elector granted Handel permission to make the trip in September 1712 'on condition that he engaged to return within a reasonable time'. Handel never honoured this obligation: now aged 27 the composer made London his permanent home, soon becoming resident composer for the Haymarket opera company, as well as a court ‘insider’. Despite his breach of contract, which must have been common knowledge, Handel remained in universal favour. His access to the most influential circles may even have been a useful source of information to the future George I. Queen Anne granted him an annual salary of £200, an arrangement continued by George when he succeeded to the British throne in 1714.

The signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 finally brought peace after a long period of war in Europe, and with it a lasting balance of power. This was a historic moment, comparable to the foundation of the future European Union, ratified at the negotiating table. For Handel himself, it was a fortunate development since the treaty allowed him again to travel freely and give concerts or make talent-scouting visits throughout Europe. His compositions, too began to circulate internationally—much more than Bach’s. In writing his Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713) Handel celebrated not only national rejoicing over the general peace but also the creation of the best possible conditions for his future career and reputation.

By 1717 Handel became, as we saw, composer-in-residence to James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later the Duke of Chandos), a man nicknamed as the ‘Apollo of the Arts’. Handel composed prolifically at Cannons, producing there the Chandos Anthems, Acis and Galatea and Esther.

During those years there were few performances of opera (most notably, a revival of Amadigi in 1717), before the formation of a properly constituted company, the Royal Academy of Music, in 1719. This gave Handel space to enter an intensive phase of keyboard writing, something he had neglected since leaving Hamburg 11 years earlier. In the beautiful interior decorations and surrounds of Cannons, and enjoying the company of a sizeable group of musicians in the Earl’s employ, Handel put together an extraordinary collection of mainly new works published as his Suites de Pieces (HWV426-33), to distinguish them from other suites that were mostly composed much earlier in Germany but published later.

Only a few years after his arrival in London, Handel had invested in the South Sea Company, prudently selling his shares before the huge turn of events occurring in 1720, the South Sea Bubble, when an economic crisis struck as their price crashed. Several of Handel's employers, including the Duke of Chandos, lost so much money that Handel was obliged to seek alternative sources of income.

Handel was an astute businessman and realised that he needed to spread his risks and chances of making a profit, expand his ‘portfolio’ and protect his interests. The publication of these new harpsichord suites was one way to help bolster his financial situation alongside his main income stream from composing and directing operas. In Amsterdam, an unauthorised publication by Jeanne Roger of some of his earlier harpsichord pieces was already in circulation. To protect his harpsichord music against any future unauthorised editions, in June 1720, Handel obtained gained a Royal Privilege, his first, for the publication of his suites.

On the 14 November 1720, Handel’s Suites de Pièces were issued by John Cluer with a prefatory statement reading:

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 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.
G F Handel

The music
The Eight Great Harpsichord Suites unsurprisingly met with a favourable reception and were reprinted at home and abroad in several editions, circulating throughout northern Europe. Although the word ‘suites’ appears at the front of each work, there is, intriguingly, no attempt at a traditional suite structure as we know it from, for example, J S Bach. Handel combined new and old elements to create this fine collection, which features a wide selection of French courtly dances, Italian vocal lyricism, French tendresse, Teutonic counterpoint and robust English tunefulness, mixing the learned and calculated with the spontaneous and improvisatory. The result is an unrivalled harpsichord tour de force, rivalling Bach’s achievement in the genre.

Whereas Bach, in his suites, writes cutting edge music that is didactic or exemplary and always remains within the bounds of national musical culture, Handel’s rather different ambition is to write music that is truly universal in character and appeal—and above all expressive, never becoming drily learned or emptily brilliant. Each suite is a unique conception, not the realisation of a grand over-arching plan. For instance, the sequence of eight different keys follows no particular pattern other than the avoidance of duplication and no two suite have an identical succession of movement types.

Leaving aside the suites, the stunning Chaconne and later operatic arias and ouverture arrangements for solo keyboard afford a fascinating extra insight into Handel’s skill and finesse as a keyboard player, the foundation of all his teaching, performing and directing. Each of these additional tracks is significant in its own right, demonstrating Handel’s wonderfully fluent writing, his exceptional ability at reworking material, mastery of extemporisation and his imperishable contribution to the repertoire of the harpsichord.

This celebratory recording helps to show why Handel came to be acclaimed in these isles as ‘the Orpheus of our Century’ long before he took British citizenship in 1727.

Suite No 1 in A major HWV426
Suite No 1 begins with a grand, exploratory and fantasia-like French Prélude in the key of A major, depicting joy, youth and spring. It instantly displays Handel’s improvisatory powers via elaborated arpeggiated chords alternating with cascading scales. The graceful Allemande features a three-part contrapuntal texture, plus ascending and descending scale passages. Harmonic richness comes to the fore in the syncopated Courante based around the aria 'Nehmt mich mit, verzagte Scharen' from Handel’s Brocke’s Passion of c1715/16. The suite moves directly on without a Sarabande, ending with a buoyant, playful Gigue in the Italian style.

Suite No 2 in F major HWV427
Suite No 2 contains none of the conventional dance movements of the typical suite, being similar to an Italian sonata in form, with a fast-slow-fast-slow sequence of movements.

Though in F major, by tradition a pastoral key, the suite opens with a beautiful, highly embellished Adagio in the Italian operatic manner, followed by a sprightly Italianate Allegro. The next movement, an Adagio, in the relative key of D minor, again resembles a miniature Italian operatic aria. The suite ends with an Allegro in F major—an exuberant fugue, initially in three parts, that after much chromatic development, adds a climactic fourth part.

Suite No 3 in D minor HWV428
Suite No 3 was mainly composed from scratch. It begins with a whirling and dark toccata-like Prélude expressing the gravity of the key of D minor. The ensuing fugal Allegro, with a dotted rhythm injects a serious, reflective note with a solemn ending. A wistful Allemande paired with a Courante takes us into a sublime, extravagantly ornamented German-type Air with five variations with a constantly strong harmonic structure, while the parts revel in diverse figurations. The final bravura Presto, where thick quasi-orchestral chordal writing in both hands alternates with scurrying semiquaver passage-work and trills, is indeed of orchestral provenance: its material is familiar from the overture to the opera Il Pastor Fido and the Organ Concerto Op 7 No 4 HWV309.

Suite No 4 in E minor HWV429
Suite No 4 begins with an Allegro that is a complex fugue. Its subject opens with three repeated crotchets resembling the bell tolling. Otherwise, its character is animated and intense with chromatics, modulations and the full sound of the bells peeling before the music subsides to a more prayerful ending, mirrored in the choice of key setting in E minor which reflects on mourning and tenderness. The succeeding movements follow a conventional suite with French-style suite pattern with an Allemande, a singing Courante, a Sarabande and an energetic Gigue with some darting imitations cleverly worked in.

Suite No 5 in E major HWV430
Suite No 5 is a melodious composition in a bright key often used to represent Paradise. It opens with stately and free flowing Prélude, which is followed by a graceful, sparkling Allemande and a lilting Courante that are perhaps Handel’s finest specimens of their type. Then comes the famously flamboyant Air with variations (called in French manner 'doubles') in place of a Sarabande. The variations gather momentum building intensity until the fifth double, featuring demisemiquaver runs in both hands, provides a thrilling conclusion. The tunefulness, metrical symmetry and diatonic harmony of the theme were the inspiration for the nickname, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ conferred on this movement by the Victorians.

Suite No 6 in F sharp minor HWV431
Suite No 6 is in a more remote and ‘difficult’ key (for the temperament employed), the one traditionally expressing tragedy and suffering. It opens with an introspective, tense and chromatic Prélude. The impressive Largo that follows likewise adopts French-style double-dotted rhythms and a rich harmonic texture that creates a dark evocative effect.

The angular subject of the spacious fugue is set against poignant suspensions in the counter-subject, the movement ending with sustained cadential pedal-notes. This same fugue is reworked in the Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 5 in D minor, HWV316 and also in the Chandos anthem In the lord put I my trust, HWV247. As if satirically, the final movement, a rustic-sounding Gigue, opens with a recurring idea also used in the duet 'Happy We' in the serenata Acis and Galatea.

Suite No 7 in G minor HWV432
Suite No 7 is an altogether larger structure beginning with the grandeur of a French ouverture in fitting for this customarily majestic key. Its theatrical opening is used also in the cantata Cor fedele, in vano speri (Clori, Tirsi e Fileno), HWV96 and in the pasticcio opera Oreste and leads into a galloping, fast fugato section.

This Ouverture is followed by a group of four movements observing the pattern of the traditional suite: an allemanda-like Andante, a corrente-like Allegro, a lyrical Sarabande and an Italianate Gigue. Instead of ending there, the suite finally launches into a sparkling and magnificent Passacaille, in quadruple metre (in preference to a Chaconne in triple time). This is a set of variations over a dance-like sequence of chords that becomes increasingly chromatic (revelling in the diminished 7th, the ‘chord of horror’) and also increasingly virtuosic. Extracts from this movement appear in the Organ Concerto Op 7 No 1.

Suite No 8 in F minor HWV433
Suite No 8 closes this extraordinary collection in a darker, more hellish and threatening key. The chromatic Prélude, newly written for 1720, has an expressive, pathetic feel. The Allegro is a grand fugue with an accelerating subject starting out as a rising scale. As it progresses, the fugue is punctuated by large block chords and increasingly features writing in octaves for the left hand. This movement was reworked in the Sonata in G minor, HWV404, for oboe, violins and continuo.

This suite ends with traditional dance movements: a temperate, graceful Allemande, a Courante that reuses the opening of the Dominus a dextris tuis movement from the Roman Vespers psalm, Dixit Dominus, HWV232 (material already employed in the terzetto 'O donnerwort' in the Brocke’s Passion and the chorus 'Mourn all ye Muses' in Acis and Galatea). This suite once again dispenses with a Sarabande, moving straight to a lively, contrapuntal Gigue that ends it and the collection as a whole, on a very energetic note.

Ouverture from Muzio Scevola HWV13 (1721)
The composition of the music for this opera was parcelled out among three very different composers: Amadei (Act I), Bononcini (Act II) and Handel (Act III). Handel opened ‘his’ act with a wonderful French ouverture of standard design. The keyboard arrangement of the Ouverture was made shortly after the composition of the opera and survives in numerous contemporary manuscript and printed sources. Its stately Largo features the traditional dotted rhythms and is followed by a lively fugal section and shows Handel's reworking of the movement to suit the harpsichord.

Pupille sdegnose, sareste pietose HWV482/4
'Disdainful eyes, you would be merciful' was originally performed by the celebrated castrato Senesino as Muzio and comes from Act III scene 3 of Muzio Scevola. The harpsichord arrangements of this aria and the next were copied out by John Christopher Smith, with annotation by Elizabeth Legh, from two manuscript copies in the Earl of Malmesbury and Gerald Coke collections and likewise feature some recomposition of the material from the original arias.

Come, se ti vedrò, cara, partir potrò? HWV482/5
'How, if I see you dearest, will I be able to depart?' was originally sung by the Italian tenor Matteo Berselli as Orazio and comes from Act III scene 6 of Muzio Scevola. Handel’s keyboard arrangement is very stylishly written, sometimes with the text cued in.

Sventurato, godi, o core abbandonato HWV482/2
'O unfortunate abandoned heart, rejoice' from Act I scene 4 of Floridante (1721) was originally sung by Senesino at the Haymarket in 1721. The title is written in Handel’s hand and is from his autograph dating around 1722. His arrangement has a beautiful expansive right-hand (originally vocal) line and indicates where the orchestral parts take over from the voice.

Ouverture from Riccardo Primo HWV456/5
According to the eighteenth-century historian Charles Burney, this harpsichord arrangement was 'one of (Handel’s) finest introductory movements—heroic music' with a 'firm and spirited' fugal allegro section. It dates from around 1727, soon after the composition of the opera.

Ombra cara di mia sposa HWV482/3
'Dear shade of my wife' comes from Radamisto, Act II scene 2. This opera was first performed at the Royal Academy in 1720. The harpsichord arrangement is a stunning realisation preserved in manuscript copies in the Malmesbury and Coke collection, later owned by Charles Wesley.

Chaconne in G major HWV435
This impressive fifth and final version of the Chaconne is different from the fourth version published by Walsh in the second volume of Handel’s Suites de Pièces of 1733, and is musically the finest. This Chaconne highlights Handel’s creative powers of extemporisation with a freshness typical of his earlier years. It has 21 variations, starting in G major, and includes a beautiful tender middle section in G minor before ending with an increasingly flamboyant section back in the major. A ritornello exists to serve as an orchestral opening and ending, and a figured continuo line, possibly hinting at an intention on Handel’s part to extemporise the enclosed variations with orchestral accompaniment.

Bridget Cunningham © 2021

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