Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin 1720
As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a rabbit. Harpsichordists wishing to perform Handel’s keyboard music are presented with various problems regarding text and chronology. One of the safest ways is to just pick the pieces you like and worry about the musicological or chronological coherence of the programme later (for example the three fine yet seemingly random anthologies by Sophie Yates on Chandos Chaconne). Another way to programme Handel’s keyboard works is according to Opus or HWV numbers. Ludger Rémy has wisely adopted the latter approach, and confines his recital to the collection of the 8 ‘great’ suites published in 1720.
Donald Burrows wrote that Handel “gained a reputation as a keyboard virtuoso, but the music that he committed to paper is rarely audibly flamboyant; some of it is, nevertheless, technically quite demanding, without sounding so” (Handel, Oxford, 1994, p. 98). The first book of Harpsichord pieces, published in 1720, was probably intended to forestall an unauthorised rival edition. Paradoxically, the second collection of Handel’s harpsichord music published in 1733 contained much older and less polished works. Thus, although we cannot know exactly how Handel’s infamous improvisations sounded, the 1720 set of suites represents his most accomplished formal contribution to a genre in which he was particularly renowned.
It is surprising that Rémy elected to use the old Halle edition published in the 1950s instead of later and improved editions by Terence Best, but Rémy’s commanding performances of the eight suites are solid, substantial, and weighty. In comparison to Paul Nicholson’s delectable performances (recently reissued on Hyperion), Rémy seems a touch insensitive and dogmatic. Rémy sounds over-earnest and portentous in moments where Nicholson brings out humour and sparkle. After a direct comparison of the harpsichordists, Nicholson strikes me as a natural Handelian with regards to phrasing, touch, and personality, whereas Rémy’s work seems the result of hard toil and industry. Even so, Rémy’s playing is painstakingly masterful and insightful, and he contributes a stimulating footnote to the booklet’s thorough essay concerning the sense of space and spontaneity required. Regardless of whether the listener feels Rémy achieves this, or if the consequent performances merely seem belaboured and deliberate, does not mask an overall achievement that is best described as worthy. “The Harmonious Blacksmith” takes on the character of a drunken high-court Judge from Gilbert & Sullivan, and Rémy’s playing is rhythmically looser and more exaggerated than that of many of his colleagues.
I would hesitate to recommend this two-disc set as an obvious place for a beginner to commence their exploration of Handel’s keyboard music. Nevertheless, it will provide thought-provoking satisfaction to those who have already heard these works a few times, and it is good to have a new recording to serve as a contrast to the lighter and cleaner playing of Paul Nicholson and Sophie Yates.
© David Vickers - January 2004
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