Lively performances of attractive music: whether it’s by Handel or not does not matter.
The six Trio Sonatas, HWV380-385, may be Handel’s earliest works. The only authority for the attribution, however, is the word of Carl Frierich Weidemann, a German flautist in Handel’s orchestra, as reported by Dr Burney. Handel is supposed to have said of these pieces that he “used to write like the devil in those days ... for the oboe”, but recent scholarly opinion has tended to move away from the attribution. The sonatas hardly seem likely to have been written at the age of ten or eleven, as Chrysander believed; if they are Handelian, they are probably his 18-year-old works. As far as I am aware, no-one has proposed an alternativeRead more identification, though the fierce competition for the post which Bach eventually received at Leipzig serves as a reminder of the high quality of musicianship in North Germany at the time.
Authentic or not, the music the music would not shame a fully-mature composer; it is well worth hearing, especially when it is played as well as it is here. That this recording, still the only version in the catalogue, has been reissued so soon after its first release presumably indicates that it has not sold well in full-price format. If that is the case, I hope that its release at budget price will guarantee that there will be no future neglect.
There may be nothing that marks the music as convincingly Handelian, especially in its present form, but the same could be said of some of the music of the teenage Mendelssohn or even of early Mozart. Though there are signs of the composer-to-come in Beethoven’s early music, much of it sounds like Haydn-cum-Mozart and Sibelius’s early symphonies reveal their debt to Tchaikovsky. Only in mythology and poetry does a mature Athene spring from the mind of Zeus or Death start up fully formed from the union of Satan and Sin, as Milton has it in Paradise Lost. In any case, as the notes in the booklet indicate, stylistic evidence is always likely to remain inconclusive.
That the music cannot have originally been intended for two oboes is clear: the second part sometimes lies too low for the 18th-Century oboe and the indications of double-stopping clearly indicate the violin. Handel is, of course, notorious for having recycled his own material; this may be an example where such practice was intended but the music set aside and the recycling never completed.
The g-minor sonata, Op.2/8, HWV393, one of the ‘Dresden’ Sonatas, which rounds off the recording, finds us on more solid ground as regards its Handelian credentials. The attribution of even this more mature piece, however, is not secure. What is clear is that it, like all the other music here, is very attractive. Usually performed by two violins, its oboe and violin format here sounds equally fine. All eight sonatas are in the 4-movement sonata da chiesa form, slow-fast-slow-fast, though the pattern is obscured in the case of numbers 1 and 5, where the second slow section is incorporated into the second movement.
As Lady Bracknell might have said, the authorship is immaterial. Trying to listen to the music as if it were by some unknown contemporary of Handel, the overall effect was of enjoyable, but not trivial music, performed by players who were enjoying it. The order in which the sonatas are played is not as whimsical as may at first appear; opening the programme with No.5 gives the listener a clear idea of the quality of the music, performances and recording. In particular, the decision to end the disc with Op.2/8 was well made, since its Andante opening heralds the most profound – but not solemn – work here.
All the music is performed in stylish and attractive fashion by Convivium, with oboe and violin engaging in some lively give-and-take and the two continuo players offering excellent support. Both Anthony Robson and Elizabeth Wallfisch shine brightly. If the oboe sometimes seems to have the lion’s share, that is surely consistent with the spirit of the music rather than a reflection on the performers or the recording balance. One review of the original issue recommended boosting the left channel to bring out the violin part, a procedure which I did not find at all necessary.
With recording and acoustic as near to ideal as may be, close but not too close and with the instruments well separated by just the right amount, there is nothing to bar one’s enjoyment of this highly recommendable collection.