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Egarr's Take on Handel

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Handel, Organ Concertos, op. 4, Richard Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music

(released February 12, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807446
Richard Egarr's tenure with the Academy of Ancient Music has launched an interesting series of new Handel recordings, beginning with last year's op. 3 concerti grossi. The next installment brings together the six organ concerti of op. 4, brilliant examples of Handel's dazzling virtuosity at the organ, which are rarely performed, at least in my recent experience. One might hear them occasionally in a church context, where there happens to be an orchestra gathered near a pipe organ. As this recording shows, however, that is somewhat inappropriate, since Handel wrote most of his organ concerti for himself to perform in concert settings, such as during intermissions of his oratorios. He likely played on a smaller chamber organ that could be moved into place without too much hassle. That is the sort of instrument, built by British maker Robin Jennings, played by Richard Egarr on this recent release.

Ever concerned with recreating, as much as possible, the conditions of Handel's London, Egarr had the instrument tuned to what is called Early English Organ temperament. This makes for some hair-raising chromatic excursions. Happily, to my ear, Egarr ornaments intensely and thickly, modeled on the example of an 18th-century performance of two of the op. 4 concerti, actually "recorded" on a cylinder in an 18th-century barrel organ. Even less to the taste of someone with set notions about these concerti, Egarr has put his stamp on these performances with some unusual transcription choices. This includes having William Carter's Baroque guitar provide continuo underpinning in no. 5 and refashioning no. 6 with reference to its original instrumentation for lute and harp, including adding an archlute part created by William Carter for this disc (Handel's lute part having been lost) and removing the recorder parts from the orchestra.

Egarr's playing is as reliable and stylistically appropriate as it ever was, far from what one could call flashy, which is not to say uninteresting. The playing of the Academy of Ancient Music is beautifully scaled to the size of the small organ. Lead violin Pavlo Beznosiuk, stepping into Andrew Manze's shoes, and cellist Catherine Jones have admirable turns in the concertino group with Egarr on the third concerto. The good news is that, even if you already own recordings of all or some of these concerti, this one is unusual enough to find its own place on your shelf.

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