The Classical Reviewer

Some composers suffer the fate of being remembered through only a handful of their works or, indeed, just a single work. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was lucky in this respect. Although the general public will tend to only remember his Messiah, Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, the more serious music lover will know of his many other works. Even then some of Handel’s lesser known Oratorios receive limited attention, a shortcoming of my own that I am trying to rectify by getting to hear more of them. In the second volume of Gilbert Rowland’s survey of Handel’s Suites for Harpsichord, this fine harpsichordist makes the point about these works being overshadowed by Handel’s operas, oratorios and orchestral music.

If this new release from Divine Art Recordings is anything to go by then he will certainly convert any sceptics as to the enormous quality of these suites. On this new 2CD set, Rowland plays the Suites in G minor, HWV 432, D minor HWV 437, F major HWV 427, F sharp minor HWV 431, B flat major HWV 434, G major HWV 450, C minor HWV 444, F minor HWV 433 and D minor HWV 436, as well as Handel’s Chaconne in G major HWV 435.

There is a terrific opening overture to the Suite in G minor, HWV 432, the seventh of the Eight Great Suites published in 1720, where Gilbert Rowland gives a wonderful feeling of breadth and grandeur. The Andante has some lovely two part writing, so brilliantly played with such clarity and the Allegro is beautifully done. There is a sultry sarabande , full of lovely decorative touches and a gigue with lovely rhythms. The concluding impressive passacaille makes a tremendous conclusion with Rowland providing lovely sounds as this movement progresses. His playing in this complex coda is superb.

The prelude of Handel’s Suite in D minor HWV 437 is Bach like in character. Rowland somehow manages to give such a wide ranging sound, full of lovely textures and colours, as he does in the succeeding Allamande . There is a lovely flowing courante and, in the Sarabande con variazioni we find one of Handel’s most famous tunes, expertly played. After a lively dancing Gigue the suite ends with a Sonata (or Gigue II) that bounces ahead with great rhythmic panache as well as some lovely subtleties provided by Gilbert Rowland.

The shorter Suite in F major HWV 427 opens with a sensitively played Adagio with some lovely decorations. The Allegro is full of life and sparkle and after the gentle little adagio there is a complex four part fugue (Allegro), admired by Mozart and played superbly by Rowland.

Handel’s Suite in F sharp minor HWV 431 is another of the Eight Great Suites from 1720, the sixth. After a somewhat serious prelude , the Largo continues in a similar vein with some fine playing from Rowland. The Allegro , a three part fugue, surely contains one of Handel’s finest tunes whereas the terrific Gigue borrows from the duet Happy we from Acis and Galatea.

The Suite in B flat major HWV 434 was published by Walsh in 1733 and commences with a Prelude that has a florid opening, full of freedom and breath, with Gilbert Rowland providing some lovely arpeggios. The Sonata is full of energy and fun and the concluding Aria con variazione was used by Bach in his Handel Variations and Fugue. This is a fine end to the first CD of this set with some fabulous playing.

The second CD of the set opens with Handel’s Suite G major HWV 450 and a somewhat more straightforward yet brilliant Praeludio . After a lovely allemande Gilbert Rowland brings out many hidden details in the Courante and is wonderful in the lovely Sarabande , a super piece. There is a lively little gigue with spot on phrasing and, finally, a simple menuet to conclude, with Rowland bringing many fine touches.

The Suite in C minor HWV 444 is thought to have been written before Handel left Germany. The terrific little prelude is full of harmonic shifts and the following Allemande is full of wonderful touches superbly caught by Rowland. The Courante pushes forward with much drive and the Gavotte has some lovely rhythms. In the short Menuet Rowland brings out so many lovely things in this simple ending.

The Suite in F minor HWV 433 is the last of the Eight Great Suites and opens with a lovely Prelude: Adagio before an Allegro , another great fugue, strikingly played by Rowland and full of invention. Gilbert Rowland is impressive in the two part Allamande that breaks into three part writing, so natural in Rowland’s hands. This leads naturally into the Courante before a fine Gigue to end.

The final suite on this disc is the Suite in D minor HWV 436 from the 1733 collection with a beautifully flowing allemande followed by an allegro that really pushes forward, full of fine playing. The Air: Lentement again allows Rowland to reveal so many lovely touches. In the wonderful Gigue: Presto there is so much energy and invention that one believes that the work will end, yet it is a Menuetto and three Variations that concludes the work with some fine Handel.

Handel’s wonderful Chaconne in G major HWV 435 would make a great end to this disc even if there were no reason for including it. As it is, the Chaconne was published by Walsh in the 1733 collection of Suites, thereby making this an obvious way to conclude this fine collection of performances. So full of wonderful invention, this is one of Handel’s finest keyboard works and played to perfection here by Gilbert Rowland. As it builds in complexity Rowland gives us some great playing.

It is impossible to praise this new release too highly. The harpsichord, a copy of a two manual French harpsichord after Goermans (Paris 1750), built by Andrew Wooderson in 2005, is a lovely instrument. The combination of Handel, Gilbert Rowland, Wooderson’s fine harpsichord, the recording venue at Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire and the recording engineer John Taylor is unbeatable providing, as it does, a collection of these wonderful suites that I will return to again and again.

—Bruce Reader