George Frideric Handel - Recorder Sonatas
The six recorder sonatas were composed in London, during the period 1724 - 1726, when Handel was enjoying a prolific period and huge success. He was producing a feast of grand Italian operas - Giulio Cesare (1724) Rodelinda (1725), Scipione (1726) to name but a few - for his company The Royal Academy of Music. He was writing florid show-stopping arias for his star singers and producing glowing orchestral scores ripe with the fruits of his musical imagination.
With his creative juices flowing, even the humble recorder (which had been the instrument of choice for the gentleman amateur in England since the end of the previous century) received a collection of sonatas lovingly crafted by a composer at the height of his powers.
Many of Handel's large scale operatic and orchestral works call upon the recorder (or pair of recorders) to play for a few choice moments, usually to represent the pastoral idyll, matters spiritual or during a love scene. The oboists or flautists in the band would have been called upon to pick up a recorder for the relevant aria or movement. Indeed they would have been expected to be more than proficient on perhaps two or three wind instruments. It is not difficult to imagine that one of these players - the leading concert performers of their day - may have asked for, or been given these sonatas to perform in the intervals of theatre or operatic performances or in one of the new concert venues that were springing up in London.
The recorder sonatas are a distillation of many of Handel's favourite melodic and rhetorical devices. As a master craftsman he was able to take ideas from large-scale works and recreate elements of oratorio, concerto, operatic aria and orchestral suites in perfectly crafted pocket book form.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that he should use these particular pieces as models to teach figured bass to Princess Anne (daughter of George II) and then later to John Christopher Smith, the son of his copyist. It is because of these lessons that we have Handel's fair copies with meticulously figured bass parts for the A minor, F major, C major and G minor sonatas to work from.
The D minor sonata, with its orchestral sweep of seven movements, is action-packed. Its limpid, bitter-sweet opening aria, a stirring hornpipe, a gripping chase scene, an imploring and impassioned Corellian Adagio, a forthright comment on the proceedings from the Alla breve chorus and then two charming formal dances to end the proceedings in a civilised manner.
The B flat major sonata is the simplest and shortest of the set. Opening with a sparkling courante (part of the Overture to Scipione), the sombre grandeur of the Adagio is framed by an effervescent Giga bursting with exuberance and joie de vivre. Another version of this movement exists in the A major violin sonata (HWV 361) also written c.1725-26.
The C major sonata begins with a supple, assured aria movement over a walking bass figure providing the prelude to a reworked version of the Overture to Handel's opera Scipione. Fugal intricacy is followed by a lingering aria (taken from the F major oboe sonata c.1712-16), arching its way over the ground bass and then followed by the sweet politeness of a Gavotte and then a jaunty Passepied to finish.
The F major sonata begins with a Grave of noble simplicity, its architectural lines leading to an Allegro gently bubbling with contentment and affection. Handel takes a more measured tone in the Siciliana but cannot help but make the final Giga a joyous and infectious reworking of one of his favourite instrumental themes. The material also appears as a flute sonata and trio sonata for two recorders and continuo (c.1707). Ten years later in 1735, the sonata was reused in its entirety as the F major Organ Concerto, HWV 293.
The A minor sonata is the most overtly dramatic of the six sonatas. Imagine if you will the first movement as the tortured agonies of a would-be heroine as she laments upon the deceit of her lover. She weeps, the dotted bass line signifying the beat of a heavy and exhausted heart. Change the scene swiftly to a rage aria with the basso continuo line providing the bile and venom and then contrast that with the serene beauty of the Adagio, soon to be replaced by the bickering cut and thrust of the final Allegro. Handel used the material of this final movement as far back as the Trio Sonata in G minor, Op. 2, No. 2, probably written around 1700, and he returned to it in an oboe concerto (1703-5), a harpsichord piece (1705-6), an aria from the oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707), two trio sonatas (c. 1718 and c. 1730), and an organ concerto (1735).
The G minor sonata is obviously Italianate in construction more influenced by the instrument than voice. It is full of Corellian phrases and contains one of Handel's favourite themes - the final Gavotta is based on a movement called ‘Aria' from George Muffat's Armonico tributo for string orchestra (1682) and he used it in a cantata (1707), three operas (1709, 1723 and 1731), a flute sonata (c. 1727-28) and two organ concertos (1735 and 1750).
Entitled "Sonata a Flauto e Cembalo" on the fair copies of the autograph manuscripts, (implying no addition of, for instance, a cello or bassoon to fatten out the bass line in performance) the Recorder Sonatas are true duos, with their interactive, muscular bass lines standing equal to the melody line. The basso continuo role is not a subservient one (as is the case in recorder sonatas of the period by Handel's contemporaries Barsanti, Bononcini, Veracini etc), but one which continually comments, pre-empts, energises and informs the narrative.
Handel's skills as an extemporiser are well documented. The organ concertos were included as an extra attraction in his oratorio performances and were vehicles for his skill as an improviser - the composers Arne and Festing, in conversation with Charles Burney, reported that (possibly during a performance of Esther in 1733) they had never heard better playing ‘premeditated' or otherwise. Even the composer's incredible ornamentation during his own Organ Concertos were perhaps a little too ripe with exuberance for the taste of some audience members:
"So strong is the Disgust taken against him, that even this has been far from bringing him crowded Audiences....Handel whose excellent compositions have often pleased our Ears and touched our Hearts, has this Winter sometimes performed to an almost empty Pitt....His Loss is computed for these two Seasons at a great Sum".
(Old Whig - quoted by Christopher Hogwood)
In matters of ornamentation our aim was of course to enhance, not obscure the musical language and to somehow (within the ‘snapshot' form of the CD recording) leave our individual imprint upon the ‘elegant sufficiency' of Handel's melodies and to show our enjoyment and appreciation of his music.
For this recording we played from facsimiles of the autograph manuscript. Pamela Thorby: 2004.
Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, 3rd-4th June 2003
Produced and Engineered by Philip Hobbs,
Alto Recorder by Frederick Morgan after originals by Bressan and Stanesby Jnr
Harpsichord by Joel Katzman, Amsterdam 1991 (after Ruckers, 1638)
Chamber Organ by Peter Collins, 1995