The Complete Chamber Music
Philips 470 893-2
Recorded between 1978-83
Reissued as a box set in 2002
- 5 Flute Sonatas (HWV 374-376; 378-379)
- 6 Recorder Sonatas (HWV 360; 362; 365; 367a; 369; 377)
- 3 Oboe Sonatas (HWV 357; 363a; 366)
- 9 Violin Sonatas (HWV 359a; 361; 364a; 367a; 368; 370-373)
- Opus 2 Trio Sonatas
- Opus 5 Trio Sonatas
- 3 ‘Dresden’ Sonatas (HWV 392-394)
- Misc. Sonatas (HWV 395; 403; 405)
- Sinfonia (HWV 338)
Academy of St. Martin In The Fields Chamber Ensemble (on modern instruments)
The term ‘complete’ ought to usually be treated with caution when applied to Handel recordings. The claims of record companies rarely match with strict historical accuracy. Yet this box of 9 discs contains just about every Handel sonata – and quite a few that he probably did not compose – that any Handelian will ever need to hear. As such, it is a useful set to own for reference purposes alone. The documentation by Anthony Hicks is predictably first-rate, making the notoriously difficult discussion of Handel’s chamber music crystal-clear.
The performances are never less than good, but anybody wanting definitive recordings containing sonically exciting, aesthetically illuminating, or historically informed interpretations will probably be disappointed by this set. When heard individually each sonata seems neatly done and full of charming playing, yet the cumulative effect lacks impact. For example, the use of vibrato may seem judicious and reasonably controlled at first, but after 20 minutes the affect becomes tiring. The ensemble’s prominent use of organ continuo in chamber sonatas is almost certainly inauthentic, and – more importantly – creates an atmosphere of lethargy in slow movement. The soloists all possess sound musicianship and technique, but even if their overall achievement is worthy, the overall effect is dull. Since these were recorded about 20 years ago, there have been quite a few much superior recordings of these works (such as the notably impressive series of recordings on Harmonia Mundi by London Baroque, Andrew Manze, and Marion Verbruggen).
Each of the discs is comparatively short, and the total running time of the 9 discs is actually far less impressive than one would expect. The attractively packaged boxed set does not compare well with the recent similar reissued set by L’École d’Orphée (6 discs, on the CRD label), which and is organized in a more logical and satisfying manner. L’École d’Orphée’s efforts are stylistically superior, and also more varied in both colour and emotion. Yet Handel’s music inspires a broad church of followers with catholic tastes, and it is good that Universal Classics have re-issued these recordings that have been unavailable for far too long.
© David Vickers - November 2002
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