Tuesday 14 November 2023

Engagement, exploration & discovery: London Handel Players return to Handel at Home for Total Eclipse

Total Eclipse: Handel at Home, volume 2; London Handel Players; SOMM

Total Eclipse: Handel at Home, volume 2; London Handel Players; SOMM
Reviewed 7 November 2023

Contemporary chamber arrangements of popular Handel movements give a real feel for the way many in the 18th century experienced his music, here in performances full of engagement and enjoyment

When 18th-century composers wrote music, relatively few people would actually hear it live. In the early 18th century there weren't such things as regular concert series, and when these did develop they were aimed at the relatively compact audience of aristocrats and gentry. The same applied to opera, where the events were as much social as artistic. 

So, unless you were so privileged, to hear a piece of music in such circumstances you had to have it played in your own home (or in that of one of your musical friends). Publishers cottoned on to this early and the money was made from publishing works that could be played by good amateurs at home. This was true even as late as the 1790s when Haydn's reputation in London (and his concomitant invitation to visit) arose from the popularity of the publication of his music in editions for amateurs to play. It was even more the case during Handel's day. During his initial period in London, he seems to have been uninterested in publishing and John Walsh pirated several editions before the composer took a hand and involved himself in the works being published.

The London Handel Players' Handel at Home series on SOMM explores this approach to the music. The ensemble, Rachel Brown flute/recorder, Adrian Butterfield, Oliver Webber and Naomi Burrell violins, Rachel Byrt viola, Gavin Kibble cello, Carina Cosgrave double bass, Silas Wollston harpsichord, has returned to Handel's music in chamber arrangements, both contemporary and their own. On this second volume, Total Eclipse we have music from Rinaldo, Radamisto, Samson, Giulio Cesare and The Choice of Hercules plus a Sonata a 5, in arrangements for ensemble or in transcriptions for harpsichord.

Within seven weeks of Handel's first opera for London, Rinaldo, making its debut in 1711, publisher John Walsh had issued a collection of arias for voice and basso continuo. The publication was so popular that two further printings were made during the four month run of performances. Thus everyone who was anyone would be able to hear the music in approachable versions. We hear the overture and arias 'Cara sposa' and 'Il vostro maggio' in versions for flute, violin and ensemble. But though these are chamber versions, it is important to remember that publications would often have the words added as well and there would be an element of Percy Grainger's elastic scoring here.

As soon as we launch into the first notes of the overture we are in a distinct world, with the players giving us a beautifully realised chamber version and it certainly does not feel in any way cut down, and we remember how Handel's own chamber music would often relate to his larger scale works.  In the arias, Rachel Brown makes a lovely protagonist, and yet again we don't think so much about the original, this version is engaging in its own right.

William Babell, a direct contemporary of Handel, published a set of harpsichord arrangements of Handel arias in a volume entitled Suits of the Most Celebrated Lessons in 1717. His version of 'Lascia ch’io pianga' from Rinaldo is altered and elaborated, and whilst Charles Burney was dismissive of Babell's talents, these harpsichord versions give us one view of the 18th century's approach to ornamenting arias. On the disc, Silas Wollston makes his own transcription and then gradually moves into Babel's version. The result is charming and rather fun. Wollston's playing is brilliant and you cannot but help smile at the elaborations.

Handel's Sonata a 5 in B-flat major (HWV 288) was written in Rome in 1707 and features one of his few works that approaches a violin concerto. Here it is played with chamber forces. In three movements, Andante, Adagio and Allegro, it receives a fine performance. Adrian Butterfield is a lovely protagonist, sweet-toned in his first movement meanderings, then bringing out the rhetorical element in the slow movement with a nicely perky finale.

When it comes to Samson, we get Walsh's version of the overture arranged, surprisingly, for flute and continuo! Brown with Wollston and Gavin Kibble, cello, make it work, lo and behold, we have a Handel movement for flute. But for the arias 'Total eclipse' and 'Thus when the sun', the ensemble has decided to reinstate Handel's original string parts, but keeping the solo line on the flute. For all the fine playing, I have to confess that the transformation of the solo tenor into flute in 'Total eclipse' seemed rather disturbing, and I missed having it in the tenor line, but that is not to fault the nicely idiomatic performances. 'Thus when the sun' becomes something elegantly graceful.

Babell's harpsichord arrangement of 'Ombra cara' from Radamisto also takes liberties, but this time because the harpsichord just cannot sustain the long vocal lines of the original, however the result comes over as richly textured and strong toned in Wollston's performance.    

We return to Walsh for three numbers from Giulio Cesare, this time for strings and continuo, with the overture, 'Se pieta' and 'Da tempeste'. The overture makes a suitably grand beginning, with Rachel Brown's flute standing in beautifully for Cleopatra in the two arias.

The disc finishes with 'Yet I can hear that dulcet lay' from Handel's The Choice of Hercules, a little gem.

What makes the disc work is not just the imaginative programme, but the sense that the performers are having real fun. We could simply be in the drawing room of a gentle household as family and friends gather to try out the latest music, and that sense of engagement, exploration and discovery is here. Along with a wonderful sense of style, of course.

Handel at Home: Total Eclipse
Chamber arrangements of music from Handel's Rinaldo, Samson, Radamisto, Giulio Cesare and The Choice of Hercules, plus Sonata a 5 in B-flat major
London Handel Players (Rachel Brown flute/recorder, Adrian Butterfield, Oliver Webber and Naomi Burrell violins, Rachel Byrt viola, Gavin Kibble cello, Carina Cosgrave double bass, Silas Wollston harpsichord)
St John the Baptist Church, Loughton, Essex 16–18 May 2023
SOMM SOMMCD676 1CD [75.48]

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