Notes and Editorial Reviews
HWV 426–434; 436–441.
Chaconne and Variations,
Prelude and Chaconne,
Ragna Schirmer (pn)
BERLIN 1645 (3 CDs: 208:25)
It has been said that Bach’s harpsichord music transcends the harpsichord but that Handel’s exploits it. For this reason, I had always resisted the idea that these works could be played successfully on
the modern concert grand piano and had consequently avoided any piano recording of Handel’s suites. My resistance began to crumble when the publisher sent me for review a recording of four suites played on the piano by Evgeni Koroliov. I found those performances persuasive and had to admit that Handel’s harpsichord music could be convincingly played on the piano. Now comes this new recording of suites to complete my conversion.
Handel published eight suites in 1720 in response to a pirated publication the previous year of four of his harpsichord suites. In his publication, Handel revised the suites that had been published as well as adding additional movements, combining them with four unpublished suites. A promised follow-up publication did not appear until 1733. This second set contained nine works, seven suites and two one-movement “suites,” each a Chaconne with variations (21 and 62, respectively). Schirmer records all except the latter Chaconne.
By Handel’s time, especially in Germany, the standard suite contained four movements, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, to which other movements might be added. Only three of these 16 suites conform to this arrangement. Most often, Handel omits the Sarabande while adding other movements generally not based on dance forms.
I was not previously acquainted with the artistry of Ragna Schirmer. The notes tell us of her many prizes in competitions, her busy career, and the awards her recordings have won. She lives in Halle, Handel’s birthplace and the site of an annual Handel festival. Her aim in this recording is to realize on the modern piano what Handel wished to express in each movement. She acknowledges the need to be careful not to overwhelm the music with modern piano technique. To these ears, she has succeeded admirably. Her touch is generally light, but she is not afraid to employ the full power of the piano when the music can bear it. Without being too free, she is occasionally playful with rhythms, especially on repeats. Repeats are tastefully decorated; whether simple or elaborate, the decorations never overwhelm the music, and she never indulges in the mistake of recomposing Handel’s melodies (would that we could get singers to follow her example). Schirmer’s technique and the recording acoustic help keep lines clear so that tone is never muddy or messy. Schirmer performs most, but not all, repeats.
The main competition for this recording comes from EMI. Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov perform most of the same works on four discs (priced as two). They omit HWV 434 and 435, substituting instead two later suites, HWV 447 and 452, which were not published until 1793. As interesting as those performances are, I find Schirmer more persuasive. She also has the better recording acoustic. The Russian pianists were recorded live. The sound is harsher, and there are occasional stage noises and coughs.
For those who dislike the sound of the harpsichord, these performances are ideal. While I prefer these works performed on the harpsichord, when I want to hear them on a concert grand, these are the discs I will play.
FANFARE: Ron Salemi
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