When one thinks of Handel nowadays, what generally comes to mind are, first and foremost, the operas and oratorios, most of which have been or are in the process of being revived. Then there are the iconic works, such as the Fireworks and Water Music suites, as well as the inevitable large-scale sacred works, such as the Te Deums and various anthems. Even though the chamber works are somewhat less in the public ear, there is no lack of recordings of the harpsichord suites, as the reviews by many colleagues over the past several years have demonstrated. Here, harpsichordist Gilbert Rowland has continued his recording of the entire corpus of 25 suites begun with the first volume released back in 2011. This sequel brings a further nine to the disc, as well as the anomalous Chaconne in G Minor (HWV 435) published by John Walsh in 1733, but written a decade and a half earlier.
My colleague Christopher Brodersen reviewed the first volume in 2012 (35:3), noting that, while it contained some excellent interpretations, he could not give his unqualified endorsement due to the disc because of the sound. In this disc, some of the questions he raised have been resolved. The instrument is a two-manual French harpsichord based upon a 1750 Goermans Parisian model. The sound is robust and powerful, and Rowland uses every inch of the keyboards, generally with a bright and decisive attack. Having heard the Borgstede Brilliant Classics recording from 2008, I find this interpretation much more masculine and edgy. The clear, almost nasal tone of the instrument does not bother me at all, and places it well among the company of equally talented interpreters. The articulation and ornamentation in particular are precise and clear. My only quibble is that I find there to be a certain sameness in the tempos and I’m not always convinced by the phrasing.
Of course, over two hours’ worth of harpsichord solo takes a gargantuan attention span, especially since one must pay continual attention to the various subtle nuances. Thus, unless one is absolutely focused upon the instrument and Rowland’s performance, it is perhaps not a set of discs to do at one go. Even the rather more free-form movements of the Suite in F Major (HWV 427) are not entirely free from the more rigid structures, so one ought to be careful of the dosage. Still, I found much to admire in the robust performance and sometimes sensitive interpretations, such as in the Passacaille of the Suite in G Minor (HWV 432) in which Rowlands nicely builds the tension until a rousing conclusion, or in the Sarabande movement of the Suite in D Minor (HWV 437) with its mysterious variations that unfold in a stately and dignified manner.
In short, this is a worthy sequel and while the decisive performance style of Rowland may not entirely appeal to everyone’s taste, it certainly provides an alternative to any effete renditions and is worth a listen.