Friday, 4 December 2020

Rediscovering Handel's keyboard music for a new generation: Pierre Hantaï's disc of the 1720 Suites de Pièces

Handel Suites de Pièces nos 1-4, 1720; Pierre Hantaï; Mirare

Handel Suites de Pièces nos 1-4, 1720; Pierre Hantaï; Mirare

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The French harpsichordist performs a selection of Handel's 1720 keyboard publication with elan and bravura

Handel's keyboard suites remain a relatively unexplored area on disc as compared to the profusion of recordings of some of his works, and it is sometimes difficult to escape the thought that they can be thought of as somewhat disappointing. Certainly, the great harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt evidently disliked them which meant that generations of keyboard players did not study these works with Leonhardt.

On this new disc from Mirare, under the title Suites pour Clavecin, French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï (who himself studied with Leonhardt) performs four of Handel's Suites de Pièces published in 1720, and gives us performances which are redolent of re-discovery and imagination.

Hantaï has come relatively late to Handel, for many years he was securely in the Leonhardt camp when it came to considering Handel's keyboard works. But in the illuminating booklet article by Gaetan Naulleau, which sheds light both on the historical background to the music and to modern attitudes to it, Hantaï refers to 'one stimulus for this change of attitude [to Handel's keyboard works] was an enthusiastic question from Sviatoslav Richter, to whom I had gone to pay my respects at the end of a concert, introducing myself as a harpsichordist: "Do you play Handel?" Until then, it had seemed to me that Handel was one of those composers who could be played without love because his music lacked depth. But if Richter was interested in him ... Perhaps I had to revise my judgement and look at things from a different angle'. [you can hear Richter's performances of the 1720 suites on disc]

Key to our understanding of these works is Handel's attitude to the keyboard, and to publishing. Handel was renowned as a keyboard player and an improviser, and it was this skill which often dazzled contemporaries, whether it was playing on the harpsichord for princes and cardinals in Italy early in his career or playing the organ in concertos during oratorio performances in the London theatre in the 1740s. But the key to all these is that Handel was improvising, even if the work was written down it could be somewhat sketchy. Handel's keyboard suites in manuscript often have preludes which are simply written as sequences of chords which the composer would then decorate and the organ concertos were similar. It was only when editing works for publication that Handel would re-work them to make the keyboard part accessible to someone other than the composer.

Handel came relatively late to understanding the benefits of publication. Many of his keyboard suites date from non-operatic periods of his life, Italy, Hanover and the early period in London. It is often easy to forget that the first decade of Handel's life in London was not full of opera, there were empty patches and one of these was filled up with his time under the patronage of the Duke of Chandos. Handel was never quite the duke's house composer, but he had a close relationship and seems to have taken the opportunity to polish up some of his keyboard works, and publish them as eight Suites de Pièces in 1720. A handsome publication which was popular both in Handel's original and in the pirate editions from Amsterdam. Very popular indeed. But Handel never followed it up. 

The whole impetus of Handel's 1720 publication seemed to be to combat piracy. Copyright was very loose at that period, and Handel's response to anyone taking advantage of his music was to do it better. The preface to his 1720 publication says it all:

'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 useful, 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'

From 1720 Handel was much involved in the formation of the Royal Academy of Music, both organising performers and performances as well as writing operas. Opera became his life and keyboard music, and publication was forgotten. But during the 1720s and early 1730s there were a series of pirate publications produced by the English publisher John Walsh senior. It is clear that Walsh had access to someone in Handel's circle who supplied manuscripts, but these were not edited by the composer and it was only when John Walsh junior took over the business that Handel seems to have come to an arrangement with Walsh and most importantly for posterity, edited works for publication. So that the first set of organ concertos, like the 1720 harpsichord suites, have revisions to make them playable by anyone.

Even so, the music can seem a little bare on the page, Handel is leaving a lot to the performer and to make the keyboard suites work you need plenty of elan and bravura.

The other thing about these suites is that they break all the rules. Handel does use the traditional sequence of dance movements for the suites - Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, but whereas Bach in the 1720s was writing instrumental suites which used these movements and then did distinctive things with them, making them his own, Handel embeds in these sequences other movements, passacaglias, theme and variations and fugues.  Handel wrote so many keyboard fugues that as well as using them in the 1720 publication he was able to publish a separate set of six fugues in the 1730s! 

The movements of the suites generally last between two and five minutes, but the fourth movement of the third suite is a whopping 9'32, a magisterial air and five variations. And of course, the fifth suite (not on this disc) includes possible Handel's most famous keyboard work, the air and variations nicknamed 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. The seventh suite from the 1720 set (not included on this disc) even includes a keyboard version of the overture to Handel's Italian cantata Clor,i Tirsi e Fileno which points to another Handelian keyboard genre which has only recently come to be recognised, his keyboard adaptations (and sometimes recomposition) of the overtures to his operas.

We still have a lot to discover about Handel's keyboard music in performance, and the only way is for great keyboard players to perform it and discover it. The great virtue of Hantaï's performances on this disc (he plays the first four of the 1720 Suites de Pièces plus the Fugue in C minor, HWV 610) is that he is playing Handel, he does not try to make the music fit the mould of Bach, Scarlatti or Rameau. And he plays the music with freedom and virtuosity, with an elan and bravura which it needs to breathe. 

Hantaï is performing on a harpsichord made in 2004 by Jonte Knif based on German models from the 18th century. The results can be heard from the first moments of the disc, with the lovely resonance and dark tone of the instrument combined with Hantaï's expressive freedom in the rhapsodic Praeludium of the first suite. We might not quite feel we are in the composer's presence, but certainly in the presence of someone who understands him. Many of the movements have an elegance that you would expect from a player like Hantaï, as well as hints of the use of notes inegales which points to the element of freedom Hantaï brings to the music without every shoehorning it into a French mould. He brings a strong personality to the music without overwhelming it, and he clearly enjoys the unconventionality of this music, revelling in the way that the fourth suite begins with a whopping fugue.

We have to remember that this is young man's music, in 1720 Handel was only 35, and he would write very little for solo keyboard after this period. Unlike Bach, who continued throughout his life to write in a variety of genres, Handel tended to concentrate so that the summation of his life's work has to be seen through his late oratorios. But because we lack the Handelian equivalent of the Goldberg Variations and the Art of Fugue, we should not dismiss the freedom and bravura of these 1720 pieces. And, with Hantaï, we should relish the space and freedom that Handel gives the performer. Surely one reason for the sheer popularity of the music during Handel's lifetime was the way each amateur keyboard player could make the music their own. On this disc, Hantaï is reclaiming the music for another generation of keyboard players. There are still four more suites from the 1720 publication, not to mention Handel's publications in the 1730s so that I certainly hope Pierre Hantaï does more explorations of this repertoire.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Suite de pièce in A major, Vol 1 No 1 HWV 426
George Frideric Handel - Suite de pièce in F major, Vol 1 No 2 HWV 427
George Frideric Handel - Suite de pièce in D minor, Vol 1 No 3 HWV 428
George Frideric Handel - Fugue in C minor, HWV 610
George Frideric Handel - Suite de pièce in E minor, Vol 1 No 4 HWV 429
Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord)
Recorded January 2020, Haarlem, Netherlands
MIRARE MIR480 1CD [67:00]

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