Organ Concertos

Hyperion dyad CDD22052
2 CDs
budget price
Recorded in 1996
Reissued in 2006

Opus 4 and Opus 7 (HWV 289-294; 306-311)

Paul Nicholson: organ
Frances Kelly: harp (Op. 4 No. 6)
The Brandenburg Consort (on period instruments)
Roy Goodman

Recorded in St Lawrence, Whitchurch, on 31 May to 5 June 1996

When performing Handel’s organ concertos, organists and conductors share a big dilemma: are the scores mere ‘sketches’ to be filled out by an enterprising and brave organ soloist, or is each note to be played as published? The story of Handel astonishing his audiences is well known. He was celebrated for the incomparable dexterity of his keyboard playing as well as for the breathtaking concatenation of his ex tempore musical art (Hawkins). So a soloist approaching these concertos attempting to be the composer himself is likely to be condemned as vainglorious and producing a result that is nowhere near what one imagines was actually heard. Take, for example, the Adagio a Fuga in Op. 7 No. 3: what any organ player gives us here will always be a shallow imitation of what the composer’s audiences actually experienced.

Yet historically informed practice has to respond somehow to the irresolvable challenge. If the music is played as in the scores what we get is an unconvincing impression of the invigorating plasticity of Handel’s inventive musical engineering. Compromises have to be made, and Roy Goodman opts for a mixture of freedom for the soloist and respect for the integrity of the score. These CDs should not infuriate authenticists and should engage listeners new to these concertos. Congratulations to Paul Nicholson for capturing something of the essence of the evergreen immediacy of Op. 4 and Op. 7 on the much-restored organ in the parish church of St Lawrence in north London, thought to have been used by Handel when living as a house-guest of James Brydges several decades before these concertos were composed.

(Some silly liner notes should be ignored.) The recording is well worth hearing. As is customary nowadays, Goodman’s band is much smaller than Handel would have used, weakening somewhat the impact of the string sound. But modern recording techniques enable a fair balance in the rich interplay between organ and orchestra. Goodman’s tempos are well-judged; his orchestral sound is light, airy, and often playfully frivolous. He recaptures the gaiety of occasion as Handel’s serious oratorio audience relaxed to this cheery interval music. We hear the composer toying with listeners’ expectations, flattering their interest by cheating them of carefully prepared resolutions as he, for example, introduces off-beat rhythms to fox the foot-tappers. (Is that a plucking lute in concertos other than Op. 4 No. 6? I hope not.) There are many felicitous moments. For instance, in Op. 4 No. 3 Goodman gives a lovely reading of the dialogue between violin and cello where less is more and simplicity everything. Throughout the concertos he is sensitive to Handel’s extraordinary skill in extending small ideas into long-breathed, fully argued dialogues. Moments of astonishing grandeur sit happily next to gigues.

Paul Nicholson, the organist, faces up to the insurmountable problems wonderfully well. What are organists, most of them fed on the ‘mother’s milk’ of fully-written out Bach, to make of Handel’s naked left-hand line and those passages marked organo ad libitum? It is good to hear Nicholson supplying chords where Handel left the bass line unfigured. To deal with the improvisatory passages, the keyboard suites of 1720 and later show modern players Handel exploring territory Bach never charted, with harmonic and motivic touches that sometimes anticipate the nineteenth century. It is this sort of late Baroque sound that organists should explore in order to deal convincingly with all those imitative passages in the organ-orchestral dialogues and the composer’s abrupt instruction to improvise. Nicholson’s approach is as good as any, his playing almost always tasteful because the decoration toys with the melody while preserving its tessitura. In the organo ad libitum movements he goes to the top of the class for braving the impossible task of capturing the spirit of Handel’s free-range style. As a ‘breather’, the old war horse, Op. 4 No. 6, is recorded as a harp concerto and gets the most pleasing performance of it I have heard, especially as Frances Kelly, the harpist, plays decorations that arouse and sustain interest.

There are some disappointments, though. The opening adagio in Op. 4 No. 3 is unconvincing: what exactly was the players’ intention here? And the second movement of Op. 7 No. 1 is played too sturdily for a lament---it quotes ‘Go, gentle, pious Youth’ from Theodora. Op. 7 No. 4’s first movement is one of the most sadly impassioned in all Baroque music, and I regret to say it is nothing of the kind in this recording. It is taken too fast; Goodman does not give it the gravitas it deserves---its ‘Romantic’ spirit was better understood by Karl Richter and Marie-Claire Alain. These small blemishes do not diminish my judgment that these are the most enjoyable recording of the organ concertos encountered since those wondrously overblown Richter recordings of long ago. An especial recommendation of this Goodman set is the inclusion of the rarely heard alternative minuet in Op. 7 No. 3, here played as a B section to the customary minuet. But for a movement that can act as a benchmark by which to settle how well Nicholson interprets GFH, listen to the third movement of Op. 7 No. 5: he passes this test with flying colours for his tasteful adroitness and wit. You should never tire of these concertos if you buy this set. For the purist, however, Trevor Pinnock’s recordings remain unchallenged (DG Archiv “Trio” series 469 358-2, 3 CDs).

© Les Robarts - April 2006

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