Harpsichord Concertos (Vol. 1)

ORF 331
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2003.

  • Concerto grosso in G major, Op.3 No. 3 (HWV 314)
  • Concerto in D minor, Op. 7 No. 4* (HWV 309)
  • Concerto in G minor, Op. 7 No. 5* (HWV 310)
  • Concerto in G-Minor, Op. 4 No. 1* (HWV 289)
  • Concerto grosso in F major, Op. 6 No. 2  (HWV 320)

Wolfgang Glüxam, harpsichord
Gradus ad Parnassum Wien (on period instruments)
Director: Hiro Kurosaki

*From John Walsh’s Six Concertos For the Harpsichord or Organ Composd by Mr. Handel (London, 1738).


The exact title of this disc is ‘Concertos for the Harpsichord 1’, and the optimistic indication of future volumes is something to be welcomed. The bad news, which doesn’t detract from the enjoyable playing on this disc, is that the underlying concept is built upon a house of cards. The back cover claims that ‘It is worth noting that Handel perhaps considered these concertos, which we now always hear performed on the organ, in the first instance (or at least as an alternative) for the harpsichord.’ I disagree: it is ludicrous to seriously suggest that Handel specifically intended these concertos for the harpsichord. Of course, it is possible that Handel played them on the harpsichord at home during the composition process, but the sole evidence to suggest this manner of playing them with an orchestra is the title-page of Walsh’s 1738 publication of Opus 4, which described the pieces as ‘Six Concertos For the Harpsichord or Organ Compos’d by Mr. Handel’.

It is naïve to interpret this as anything more meaningful than Walsh’s determination to make his publications appeal to as wide an audience as possible. If an 18th century gentleman did not own an organ, then Walsh was letting him know that he could still buy this music and perform it on a harpsichord. Thus, the ‘evidence’ is more related to Walsh’s strategic sales marketing than Handel’s compositional intentions and performance practice. Until future evidence confirms that Handel envisaged some of these concertos for harpsichord, I shall remain extremely sceptical of the arguments presented alongside this recording.

It ought to be enough for the fine musicians of Gradus Ad Parnassus Wien to produce musically stimulating performances. If the additional kudos of historical justification is required, then at least Walsh’s title-page confirms that performance on the harpsichord was a perfectly authentic 18th century interpretation, most likely related to domestic music-making. The good news is that these performances seem appropriately scaled and delivered for exactly such an occasion, so in that sense at least these performances possess historical integrity.

In the event, this disc also features the concerti grossi Opus 3 no. 3 and Opus 6 no. 2. It was certainly wise not to record a monotonous disc of keyboard concertos performed on harpsichord. Instead, the inclusion of the concerti grossi creates a sense of variety and spaciousness in the performances. Ironically, Wolfgang Glüxam plays a prominently balanced organ continuo in Opus 6 no.2 (in which it is certain Handel would have used a harpsichord). In the keyboard concertos, Glüxam is a committed soloist whose agile fingerwork is perfectly acceptable, though I would not choose these occasionally perfunctory performances instead of the best interpretations using organ (Paul Nicholson on Hyperion, or Ton Koopman on Erato).

Gradus Ad Parnassus Wien is suitably lively, engaging, and technically assured. The band contains several respected players such as violinists Hiro Kurosaki, Simon Heyerick, and Michi Gaigg, and the quality of the playing and mastery of style produces a pleasant general experience. The small size of the ensemble introduces a tangible sense of chamber music to these performances, although ORF’s reverberant recording keeps the sound sweet and resonant.

Despite my grumbling about how this recording is being marketed, it is good to hear an approach to the music that explores Walsh’s hint regarding instrumentation. I hope that the ORF label and these excellent artists will not feel insecure enough to exaggerate the ‘authenticity’ of performing these keyboard concertos with harpsichord. Unsustainable allegations regarding the composer ought to be avoided, especially because the results speak for themselves. Fundamentally incorrect claims that it reflects Handel’s own intentions ought not eclipse the fact that if other 18th century musicians performed these organ concertos using a harpsichord then that is sufficient excuse for us to have an opportunity to appreciate them in the same way.

© David Vickers - September 2003

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