About this Recording
8.572245 - HANDEL, G.F.: Violin Sonatas (Complete) (Ensemble Vintage Koln)

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Complete Violin Sonatas


The Violin Sonatas by George Frideric Handel, masterful works by this truly European baroque genius, have been shrouded in mystery. Until quite recently the most respected publications listed Six Handel Sonatas for Violin and Basso continuo, pieces known and loved by generations. As it turned out, however, four of those six are of questionable origin. Meanwhile, another three authentic violin sonatas were practically ignored for centuries.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685. Although his father originally forbade music and intended him to study law, young Handel practised secretly and finally received music lessons from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, learning organ, harpsichord, violin, harmony, counterpoint and composition. He soon became known for his superb keyboard playing and promising compositional talents. He went to work at the opera in Hamburg in 1703, first as a violinist, then as harpsichordist and budding opera composer. After three years there he travelled at the suggestion of Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici to Italy, where he spent time in Florence, Rome and Venice, frequenting noble and otherwise prestigious circles. His contact with the Italian musical world of opera, oratorio, cantatas and instrumental works had a profound influence on his development. He interacted with colleagues such as Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Albinoni and Corelli. Handel had arrived in Italy a not yet fully formed composer, and left as a truly developed artist, able expertly to combine and interweave the different European influences, especially the German contrapuntal and Italian operatic styles, as his instrumental sonatas demonstrate.

In 1710 Handel was appointed Kapellmeister to the court of Hanover, an important post which he nonetheless began with a twelve month leave of absence in London, where he eventually settled permanently. He was instrumental in bringing the Italian opera seria to London, an undertaking which led to the founding of the Royal Academy and cemented London’s standing as a cultural capital. His operas were prolific and famous, but not all successful at the time. The ensuing immense popularity of his oratorios was an unexpected byproduct of circumstances. Supported by the court and revered by the public throughout most of his professional life, Handel survived two strokes and was able to remain rather active and vigorous until relatively old age. He died in London in 1759.

The instrumental sonatas which survived offer but a sliver of material compared with the scope of his complete works. The first publication of twelve instrumental sonatas around 1730 was for various melodic instruments: flute, recorder, oboe and violin. (These did not include the great Sonata in D major, HWV 371, which had yet to be written, or the Sonata in G major, HWV 358.) It seems the publisher, John Walsh acting under the name Jeanne Roger of Amsterdam, wanted to offer ‘something for everyone’ by the popular composer. This led to future confusion, however, because in switching around the solo instruments, a not uncommon practice, Walsh ‘gave away’ two violin sonatas to the oboe and flute. Furthermore, he added two violin sonatas which were not authentic, in the Sonatas in A and E, HWV 372 and HWV 373. The copies of these in the British National Library bear the note “NB. This is not Mr. Handel’s”. John Walsh published a corrected version of the same instrumental sonatas a few years later, in which he removed the two imposter violin sonatas and replaced them with two others, in G minor and F major (HWV 368 and 370). These in turn bear the note “Not Mr. Handel’s Solo” (in different handwriting) in the British Library copies. The combined Roger/Walsh editions were adapted by the great nineteenth-century publisher Chrysander and handed down as authentic. Twentieth-century scholars such as Terence Best have brought us much closer to knowing the truth.

We begin with the great Sonata in D major, HWV 371, one of Handel’s best-known works and certainly one of his strongest sonatas. A mature work, it is the latest of the violin sonatas: the paper of the surviving autograph has been dated to around 1750. The slow movements stand out in their richness and expressivity. The fugato and the counterpoint of the second movement are masterful and ebullient, virtuosic and never heavy-handed. The dance-like material of the final movement was also used in the oratorio Jephtha.

The Sonata in A major, HWV 361, (ca. 1726) which follows is also a true masterpiece. The unique lyricism of the first movement precedes another brilliant fugato movement. The short, plaintive third movement leads into an exceptionally elegant and sprightly finale.

The Sonata in D minor, HWV 359a, (ca. 1724) was published by Walsh as a flute sonata. The first movement has an unusually declamatory character thanks to its strong rhythmic motives. The second movement is contrapuntal and has an urgent quality. The third movement depicts fragility and emotional affects, and the final movement is graceful, with a nostalgic elegance.

The Sonata in G minor, HWV 364a, (ca. 1724) was clearly written for the violin and in addition Handel indicated the solo part could be played by the viola da gamba. Publisher Walsh delegated it to the oboe. This work is particularly beautiful and well-crafted. It opens with a gorgeous aria followed by an elegant contrapuntal second movement. The third movement is short and questioning, and the fourth movement has an homogenous texture which rolls effortlessly and brings the work to a satisfying close.

The Sonata in G major, HWV 358, (ca. 1707), an earlier work written on Italian paper, differs from the others in form. The first of only three movements is a cleverly crafted Preludio or perpetuo mobile, the second movement a declamatory recitativo with bold modulations. The extremely high notes at the end of the Gigue-like third movement are quite a surprise, and it is uncertain how seriously they were actually intended. This sonata had no instrument indication and the writing might otherwise suggest a flute; but these highest notes, assuming they were truly intended, are the main proof of argument that it was in fact written for the violin.

The lilting Andante in A minor, HWV 412, (ca. 1724/25), of unknown origin or intention, gives a masterful example of the Italian operatic influence. The Allegro in C minor, HWV 408, (ca. 1724/25) is practically the same material as that which Handel used in his Recorder Sonata in A minor, HWV 362; this illustrates how the composer could share material among different melodic instruments and extrapolate material from one sonata to another.

The inherent qualities of Handel’s violin sonatas were obscured over time by the additional four “imposter” sonatas. Of these, the Sonata in A major, HWV 372 and sonata in E major, HWV 373, which both appeared in the early Roger audition, exude light elegance and warmth. The Sonata in F major, HWV 370, and Sonata in G minor, HWV 368, are greater in scope but not deeper in meaning. Is it possible that Handel composed them after all, in spite of the contrary evidence? Looking simply at the musical content, they are unquestionably beautiful works, which will still do justice to concert programmes. However, in comparison with the undisputed sonatas, these are less stringent, less consistent in their writing; they are more repetitive and more unusual in a sometimes awkward way. We do not condemn these works; the problem is simply that they have “clouded the waters”. Having been sold as Handel and included as such in respected publications, for a good two centuries they deterred our ability to delve into and grasp the essence of Handel.

We have chosen to keep the authentic and non-authentic sonatas separate in the programme order so that the listener might be able to notice the subtle differences. A practised ear may or may not discern a slight shift in the musical language after the first five sonatas and the two fragment movements; admittedly, the impression will be subjective. If you hear no difference, that too is fine, and a compliment to the composer (whoever it was) and the interpreters. We enjoyed flexible use of the violoncello and viola da gamba in the basso continuo. Our choice to play this repertoire on baroque instruments is based on the conviction that the original instruments still best do justice to the music that was written for them. Handel’s wide range of colours and expression are complemented by subtlety and fragility, nuances for which baroque instruments remain particularly appropriate.

Ariadne Daskalakis, 2010

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