Notes and Editorial Reviews
8 Harpsichord Suites,
Richard Egarr (hpd)
HARMONIA MUNDI 907581.82 (2 CDs: 118:12)
“[These suites] have rarely been recorded or promoted by harpsichordists during the most recent revival of interest in ‘early music.’” I realize that Richard Egarr is entitled to his own opinions—his liner notes on an earlier release, for example, likened the humor in Purcell’s harpsichord music to that of the wonderful old 1950s BBC comedy
—but he’s not entitled to his own facts. Christopher Brodersen pointed out in a 2011 review of these works featuring Laurence Cummings (
34:5) that ArkivMusic listed nine complete sets played on the harpsichord, with several others on the piano. I find some of the suites have considerably more recordings than that, in 2014: 26 for the Suite in A Major, 28 for the Suite in D Minor, 25 for the Suite in E Minor, 47 for the Suite in E Major. If such numbers reflect rare recordings, I have to wonder what Egarr would consider a moderate number, let alone a frequent one.
I do share with him a strong regard for the Suites, however. Though musicologists differ over the dates of their creation—and it’s quite likely many were revisions of earlier works, a practice to which the composer was exceedingly prone—they demonstrate as a whole remarkable uniformity, a Handelian synthesis of South German and Italian keyboard characteristics within the larger frame of a very definite French style and structure. Egarr notes that their textures sometimes require awkward fingerings, and that Muffat rewrote the works in 1735 to make them more easily playable, producing a different effect—would that one or two of these pieces had been included in this collection!—but they never sound awkward here. And they achieve an expressive variety through a multitude of means that does not reflect poorly on the composer of the great operas, oratorios, and orchestral suites.
I find Egarr in these works much as I did in his monumental undertaking of Louis Couperin’s harpsichord music (Harmonia Mundi 907511.14)—supple in his phrasing, and selecting tempos that feel unerringly correct. He ornaments repeats, and furnishes cadenzas which are always sensibly chosen and constructed. Where the music lends itself to the
, Egarr takes his cue and heads off in that direction. Several of the preludes are obviously meant for this treatment, such as those to the A Major, F? Minor, and E Major, and at such times the harpsichord’s ancestor, the lute, is most apparent. He adjusts accordingly, however, so that the textures of the Overture that leads off the Suite in G Minor are given their proper, very orchestral, weight, as is the same Suite’s remarkable Passsacaille.
While that Passacaille is as virtuosic as any you will find on disc (including that of the at times manic Jory Vinikour on Delos 3394), it is in the more sensitive, slower music that I believe Egarr especially shines: the Air and Doubles in the D-Minor Suite, the graceful Courante from the A-Major Suite, and particularly the Sarabande in the G-Minor Suite, where the harmonic suspensions are given full weight. To his credit, Egarr never engages in that practice Brodersen found so annoying in Cummings, and which I have in several harpsichord recordings of Sempé: a manneristic rushing through rhythmic groups, leading to a loss of the music’s pulse. Every note receives its due regard both in the immediate phrase and the overall structure of each piece. It is playing of a high order, from a musician who clearly loves this music and wishes to share what he’s discovered with others.
The instrument heard is the one Egarr has employed in both previous releases of his that I’ve reviewed, a copy of a 1638 Ruckers by Joel Katzman. He mentions having it strung tighter than usual to approximate the A=422 of a surviving tuning fork owned by Handel, and used by him in London. It certainly does sound less mellow than on those earlier albums, if still capable of charming delicacy; but I trust he gave it some time off and a good stiff drink or two to unwind after this recording was finished.
This joins the three volumes of Handel that Sophie Yates has recorded (Chandos 0644, 0669, 0688) for my pick of the finest Handel on harpsichord. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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