Notes and Editorial Reviews
Concertino for Piano
Ragna Schirmer (fp, pn, org); Bernhard Forck, cond; Händelfestpiel O Halle (period instruments); Andreas Seidel, cond; Ens Dacoure; The Strings
BERLIN 300554 (3 CDs: 218:38)
This set of discs seems to be what happens when a keyboardist runs amok. One is tempted to see a gradual descent into, well, something out of the ordinary, when Ragna Schirmer takes the well-known organ concertos by
Handel and produces three separate discs with rather radical differences using the same music as a foundation. She begins with a series of five works drawn from the op. 4 (Nos. 1–5 to be precise), performing them in a rather sonorous fashion using period instruments as the accompaniment. To be sure, her keyboard of choice is a fortepiano, but the sound manages to blend nicely with the straight tone playing of the Halle Handel Festival Orchestra, making it an interpretation that, while not particularly “authentic,” nonetheless might not have been so unfamiliar to the composer. Somehow it works rather nicely, and although one misses the organ, I find that the fortepiano is a clear substitute that is not disturbing; Handel’s lively and energetic music coming through without problem. It does sound just a tad modern, but certainly had the composer lived a number of years longer (say, to an even 100, to witness his own centennial in 1785) he would have no doubt thought that the fortepiano had many advantages. As one example, the final gigue of the Concerto in F Major (No. 5) comes away sounding positively sprightly.
The second disc, however, begins the transition. Here Schirmer takes on concertos from a later publication, the op. 7. The orchestra is now modern, with a huge increase in sonority and textural depth. Her instrument of choice here is a Steinway Grand, with all of its massive overtones and depth. Having sat through years of
in the 19th-century arrangement of Ebenezer Prout, with its huge and often overpowering orchestration, it is not entirely unfamiliar. After all, if there had been no period performance movement, this would have been all we would have had at hand, and in many places the grand piano would have to be the choice. The nuances that are inherent in the original, such as clear runs, precise ornaments, and well-articulated spun-out lines, seem to be dissolved into Beethovian grandeur. Yet, it still works, after a fashion, if one can pardon the obvious huge sound world created by the modern piano. Just as one is getting settled, however, the disc ends with a commission by the Handel Festpiel of a new composition by Giullaume Connesson. Although there are moments of paraphrase in this work, it is thoroughly neoclassical, and we are far removed from any world associated with the Baroque. The first movement has an agitated feel, and the piano is often in combat with the orchestra. The second movement is a meandering lament, where the harmonies and dissonances seem to lead in a tortuous direction, with the piano line occasionally doing some Handelian paraphrases. It is highly effective as a concerto second movement for modern times (though not experimental), recalling the music of Roy Harris. There is almost a Prokofiev-like feel to the lively third movement, where the piano skirls about in a breathless romp. What this has to do with Handel and organ concertos is all the more tenuous, apart from the occasional paraphrase.
The modern second disc is, however, only the warm-up. In the third, the satirical paraphrases are taken to a new level, with Schirmer exchanging her pianos for a Hammond organ. The combo (for calling it an orchestra would now be a travesty) jazzifies the concertos. The beat of the percussion continuo lets the rhythms explode into a sort of pop event. A trumpet enters in the first piece, drawn from the op. 4, as a sort of demented mariachi, while the trombone peels off the twisting line with blues and improvisatory jazz licks. In a strange way, this is full circle for the improvisatory Baroque Handel, who now rocks around with a tripping, kaleidoscopic jazzy performance. In a way, it seems cool.
So, where does one go with this set? Obviously, even at the beginning the concept of Handel’s original performance practice has been tampered with and liberties taken. This is being done in a fashion that is sure to offend any purist. But getting into the groove (so to speak) can lead one from the static concert hall to the night club, all with Handel in the back and foreground. Schirmer uses her progressive interpretive skills in performances that are, in and of themselves, very fine (not taking into account anything in terms of performance practice accuracy) and a whole lot of fun. Who says that the Baroque is a museum piece and that Handel is old hat? If you need a good time, you might check out the set. But it will take some mind-bending for diehard classical music fans.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Organ in A major, HWV 296 by George Frideric Handel
Ragna Schirmer (Fortepiano)
Halle Handel Festival Orchestra
Written: 1739; London, England
Concertino for Piano by Guillaume Connesson
Ragna Schirmer (Piano)
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