Thursday, 16 April 2020

Handel: works for viola da gamba - Ibrahim Azizi & Masumi Yamamoto give us a flavour of the sort of programme that an 18th century viola da gamba player might have assembled

George Frideric Handel Works for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord; Ibrahim Aziz, Masumi Yamamoto; First Hand Records
George Frideric Handel Works for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord; Ibrahim Aziz, Masumi Yamamoto; First Hand Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Spanning works written by Handel, ascribed to him, and arranged by him, as well as arrangements by his contemporaries and by the performers, this disc gives us a sampling of how an 18th century viola da gamba player might have approached Handel's chamber music

This disc on First Hand Records from viola da gamba player Ibrahim Aziz and harpsichordist Masumi Yamamoto brings together the works that George Frideric Handel wrote for viola da gamba and harpsichord, along with works attributed to him and sonatas arranged from other works.

The status of the viola da gamba went through something of a change during the 18th century, going from favoured instrument to something rather old-fashioned. In Italy, this happened quite early on in the century whereas in France it was favoured as a solo instrument. Whilst Handel wrote obbligato parts for the viola da gamba in his Italian works, and it pops up in his opera Giulio Cesare (from 1724), but it does not at first seem to be central to his English career.

Whilst he wrote chamber works for solo harpsichord, and for violin, recorder, transverse flute and basso continuo, there are not explicitly any viola da gamba sonatas. But in the manuscript of his G minor sonata HWV 364a Op. 1 No. 1, which is for violin and continuo, Handel adds the opening of the piece in a suitable key and clef for the viola da gamba, indicating that gamba players could perform it an octave lower. Following Handel's example, Ibrahim Aziz has transcribed Handel's Sonata in A major, HWV 372 for violin and continuo, into a sonata for viola da gamba in G major (to suit the tuning of the gamba).


In fact, the attribution of the original sonata to Handel is perhaps doubtful, but that is true of much of the music on the disc. But we should not get too hung up on that, and concentrate on the quality of the pieces instead. The so-called Kassel Sonata is from a manuscript in the collection of the University of Kassel, which may have been copied by William Babell (c1690-1723), an associate of Handel's (Bridget Cunningham has recorded two of Babell's virtuosic harpsichord transcriptions of Handel arias in her Handel in Ireland disc), though some of the sonatas in the manuscript are now attributed to Johann Jakob Kress (1685-1728). The Sonata in C major for Viola da Gamba and Obbligato Harpsichord is attributed to Handel in ten of the eleven surviving sources. So, though it may be the work of Johann Matthias Leffloth (1705-1713), it may well be a work by Handel dating from his period in Venice (1706-1707).

Aziz also plays his own transcription of Handel's Keyboard Suite HWV 448, a work written in 1705/06 and so from Handel's Hamburg period. We also hear a transcription, for solo harpsichord, by the composer Gottlieb (Theophile) Muffat (1690-1770), the youngest son of the famous composer George Muffat (1653-1704), of the Suite No. 4 in E minor for Harpsichord HWV 429, a work which dates from the 1720s and may originally have been written for Handel's own performances for patrons (including the Royal family) or for teaching material (he wrote harpsichord works for his pupil Princess Louisa).

Finally, we have a little work of contrast, the Prelude from the Suite in E minor for Viola da Gamba by Sainte-Colombe Le Fils (c1660-1720). The son of the great French viola da gamba player and teacher, Jean de Sainte-Colombe (1640-1700), Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils made his career in Scotland and England (emigrating perhaps because of his Protestant beliefs; King Louis XIV made Protestantism illegal in France by revoking the Edict of Nantes in 1685). It is very much in the French style, unlike a lot of the music on the disc, but reflects the cosmopolitan influences around Handel in London.

This is a lovely disc and, despite the rather complex history of some pieces and the fact that not all of it was actually written for viola da gamba, is a beautifully balanced programme. Ibrahim Aziz plays his violas da gamba (a six-string one by Barak Norman  made in London in 1712 and another by Shem Mackey from 2011 copying a seven-string original from Paris in 1683) with a lovely lyrical tone, easy grace and a nice fluency in the more virtuoso passages. He is well-supported by harpsichordist Masumi Yamamoto who ensures that the two make a real partnership.

Instrumentalists of Handel's period had a highly flexible attitude to source material, and this engaging programme not only showcases Aziz and Yamamoto's fine playing, but gives us a flavour of the sort of programme that an 18th century viola da gamba player might have assembled.



George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Sonata in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Basso Continuo, HWV 364b
George Frideric Handel, transc. I.Aziz - Sonata in G major for Viola da Gamba and Basso Continue, after HWV 372
George Frideric Handel, attrib. / J.J Kress (1685-1728) - Kassel Sonata No. 5 in D major for Viola da Gamba and Basso Continuo
Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe le fils (c1660-1720?) - 'Prelude' from Suite in E minor for Viola da Gamba
George Frideric Handel, transc Gottlieb Muffat (1690-1770) - Suite No. 4 in E minor for Harpsichord HWV 429
George Frideric Handel, transc I. Aziz - 'Prelude' from Suite No. 4 in E minor for Harpsichord HWV 429
George Frideric Handel, transc I. Aziz - Suite in D minor for Viola da Gamba and  Basso Continuo HWV 448
George Frideric Handel - Sonata in C major for Viola da Gamba and Obbligato Harpsichord
Ibrahim Aziz (viola da gamba)
Masumi Yamamoto (harpsichord)
Recorded at the Church of the Ascension, Plumstead, London, 25-27 October 2019
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR91 1CD [77:26]

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