Sunday 19 February 2012

CD review - Handel in Ireland

A picture of Handel as a keyboard player is tantalisingly difficult to assemble. His published keyboard music was generally intended for the wider public and his own private performances were heavily based on improvisation. It is only occasionally that we can catch a glimpse of the keyboard virtuoso who dazzled his contemporaries, in surviving keyboard cadenzas and occasional movements in the suites (such as the Sarabande in the 7th Suite).

Harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham has taken a fascinatingly different  route to shedding light on Handel's keyboard skills. Her disc, Handel in Ireland, sets Handel's 7th Suite in G minor HWV 432, published in 1720, in the context of his contemporaries. Surrounding the suite with music particularly inspired by Handel's  visit to Dublin in 1741/42

Cunningham opens with William Babell's virtuosic transcription of the aria Vo far guerra from Handel's Rinaldo. No strictly Irish connection here, though Rinaldo may be the first Italian opera to be performed in Ireland. Babell was a contemporary of Handel's in London,  a pupil of Pepusch and possibly of Handel as well. He wrote numerous transcriptions of popular operas and his two transcriptions which Cunningham includes on her disc add a degree of display and virtuosic brio that is missing from Handel's suite. Handel used to improvise harpsichord cadenzas during Vo far guerra and it has been suggested that Babell's transcription reflects his memories of these. In fact the aria is related thematically to the organ sonata in Il Trionfo del Tempo which is one of the concrete glimpses of Handel's keyboard skills. Babell's transcription ofVo far guerra is a humongous piece, lasting over 12 minutes; though brilliantly played by Cunningham, I was getting a little tired of repeated arpeggios by the 10 minute mark.

Cunningham follows this with Handel's own impressive arrangement of the Overture to Esther. This comes from a manuscript written by Smith (Handel's assistant) between 1737 and 1739. In fact Handel performed Esther in Dublin in 1742. Cunningham gives a solidly dramatic performance that convinces as a keyboard work in its own right.

She follows this with a strong performance of Handel's 7th Suite, a work of delightful variation finishing with the brilliant Passacaille (a movement lasting over 4 minutes) and opening with an equally powerful Ouverture (lasting some 6 minutes). Handel's borrowings in the suite include the Overture to his cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno recast in keyboard form as the Ouverture (though there are suggestions that this piece may originally go back earlier than Clori, Tirsi e Fileno).

Cunningham's performance is confident and she uses a finely resonant harpsichord. For the Sarabande she gives us a remarkable damped stop which gives a striking texture to the movement.

She follows this we the other of the Babell arrangements, Laschia ch'io pianga from Rinaldo. Babell needs to make the textures busier than Handel's original in order to compensate for the harpsichord's inability to sustain long lines. But the results are convincingly bravura.

The 8th Suite of Lessons by Thomas Roseingrave follows; a relatively short but impressive 3 movement piece which owes something both to Handel's 7th Suite and to the music of Scarlatti. Roseingrave was the promising son of a Dublin organist; he studies in Italy, was befriended by Scarlatti and became the first organist of St. George's Church, Hanover Square (Handel's parish church). But all this came to nought as he was unlucky in love and became unstable. Thomas Carter was another Dublin born composer and he worked in Dublin before moving to London, making a name for himself as a composer of songs. His 2 movement Sonatina is a charming work which certainly does not outstay its welcome.

Cunningham finishes with a pair of Irish folk songs in her own delightful arrangements, the second one includes a part for baroque harp creating a magical effect.

She performs on two harpsichords. A double manual Blanchet fully painted green copy of Ruckers by Andrew Wooderson, 1996, and a double manual Blanchet navy/vermillion copy by Goble 1988. But the booklet does not specify which she plays on which track. That used for the opening pieces seems to have a wonderful resonant lower register of a richly chocolate colour. The other seems to be far fruitier in tone.  I would have liked to have known more.

Cunningham's own extensive and informative booklet article provides full background to the pieces alongside information about Handel's visit to Dublin and the musical life in the town at the time.

In all the pieces, Cunningham's playing is brilliantly authoritative, providing a strong case for buying the CD on the simple grounds of loving superb keyboard playing, But her thoughtful and imaginative programme mean that we are double tempted by the disc.

Handel in Ireland
William Babell (1689/1690 - 1723)  - Vo far guerra from Handel's Opera Rinaldo
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1739) - Overture to Esther
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1739) - 7th Suite in G minor HWV 432
William Babell (1689/1690 - 1723) - Laschia ch'io pianga from Handel's Opera Rinaldo
Thomas Roseingrave (1690 - 1766) - 8th Suite of Lessons in G minor
Charles Thomas Carter (1735 - 1804) - Sonatina Op.6 No. 10
Anon - The Poor Irish Boy
Anon - Aileen Aroon

Recorded at the Royal College of Music
Rose Street Records RSR 002, 1CD [62.46]

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