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Egarr and the Charm of Handel

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Handel, Organ Concertos, op. 7, R. Egarr, Academy of Ancient Music

(released on August 11, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807447.48

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Op. 4

Online scores:
Opp. 4 and 7
Just in time for the Handel Anniversary Year, Richard Egarr's tenure as director of the Academy of Ancient Music quickly became known for the beginning of a completist's traversal of the works of that composer. Discs have been appearing, opus by opus, including the twelve solo sonatas (op. 1), the concerti grossi (op. 3) and Egarr's first installment of the first volume of the organ concerti (op. 4). The second volume of the organ concerti is no less pleasing than the first and required listening for anyone in need of an introduction to Handel the keyboard virtuoso. As William D. Gudger has pointed out, in the introduction to his edition of the op. 4 concerti, "Handel may properly be credited with the invention of the organ concerto." Handel's concerti grew out of his reportedly astounding improvisations at the organ, with which he often wowed audiences during intermissions at performances of his oratorios and other large works. Hawkins and others reported that he continued to improvise as part of these concerto performances, usually extemporizing a voluntary or other introduction to the piece.

The op. 7 set, published posthumously, show Handel's work in the genre during the last twenty years of his life: while the op. 4 set had concertos with all of the movements composed and written down, some in the op. 7 set indicate that some movements were left to be improvised. Egarr, a fine improviser, takes a stab at the Handelian style in these sections, truly all'improvviso, which goes a long way toward recreating or at least approximating the excitement listeners must have had listening to Handel play these concertos. Egarr, in his liner notes, shows himself to have the scholarly issues well in hand, too, having compared the edition published by John Walsh in the 18th century, which are really adaptations of Handel's compositions, with the composer's manuscripts (Egarr uses Walsh for most of his performances, except for recording both menuets for the third concerto, that by Walsh as well as the one in Handel's manuscript).

He has also tried as much as possible to play on an organ that matches what we can glean from the historic record about what instrument Handel might have had at hand: for example, Handel's letter (September 30, 1749) to Charles Jennens on the subject of finding a suitable chamber organ for him to play, a document now in the Moldenauer Collection at the Library of Congress, which has made it available online. Egarr uses a digital sleight of hand to give the chamber organ the pedal sound it needs for a few passages in op. 7, no. 1, that require it (an oddity of the set that requires some adjustment in any case -- see Richard Egarr speak about the Handel organ concerti in the video embedded below). This is one possible reservation to note about this recording, for those listeners who are not Baroque fanatics: listen to a sample of Egarr's organ, tuned to an 18th-century temperament that will bend your ears out of shape until you get used to it. It is a sound that some listeners may not be able to abide.

All of these qualities put Egarr's set above the competition, even the best of it, like (roughly in ascending order) Peter Hurford and Joshua Rifkin (with a large Dutch organ and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and interpolated pieces instead of improvisations), Simon Preston and Trevor Pinnock (with the English Concert), and Daniel Chorzempa and Jaap Schröder (with Concerto Amsterdam), in everything but cost. The Ton Koopman set with Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, while fine and well-priced, has all of the op. 4 and 7 concertos, but none of the extras. Egarr did choose to include one of the un-opused concertos, the F major concerto ("The Cuckoo and the Nightingale," HWV 295), but instead of the others (in the range from HWV 296 to 305, presumably still to come on another disc) he includes some interesting minor pieces ("close to my heart," as Egarr puts it). This includes the F major chaconne (HWV 485) and a G minor fugue (HWV 294), both played on harpsichord, as well as the much more extensive G major chaconne (HWV 442), which Egarr notes has the same bass line and harmonic pattern as the aria of Bach's Goldberg Variations and may indeed have been the impetus for that work. A treat for the ears and the brain.

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