Handel: Complete Violin Sonatas — Er-Gene Kahng, violin; Miroslava Panayotova, piano — Con Brio

Handel: Complete Violin Sonatas — Er-Gene Kahng, violin; Miroslava Panayotova, piano — Con Brio Recordings CBR21751, 80:00, **:

Modern rendering of Baroque Chamber Music:  well performed, but…

Baroque performance practice might be described as a number of things; a style, an anthropology, a philosophy, or even a set of rules. Since the late 1960s, there have been an increasing number of musicians, playing baroque music, who adhere to this “code,” even though reproducing music “as it was heard” at the time is impossible to do with any certainty.

In a former life I read a bit of music philosophy (and philosophy of the arts) and came to the conclusion that playing music in Bach’s sound world, or in this case, George Frederick Handel’s sound world, was a legitimate pursuit. Beyond the choice of instruments, performance practice also dictated how to read a text, how to improvise and embellish with ornaments, and how to read various figures as rhetorical gestures. It was clear to me that there was more to this music beyond what was left on a page; there was a tradition and we had enough clues to suggest that the tradition might lead us to approach this music differently than music we approach by contemporary composers.

And I also believed there was something gained in throwing that all away and approaching the music without any performance traditions, or at least very few. Such an example, I think, was Glenn Gould with his approach to Bach. So much of his interpretation was about Gould—and his feelings about the music. And while that relationship wasn’t crystal clear (he eventually got caught up in some of the history and historical performance movement himself), there’s no denying, perhaps, that when we hear his Goldberg Variations (especially the 1950s edition) that a) it’s likely very different from what Bach would have experienced, and b) it’s musically very interesting.

In this release of Handel’s complete violin sonatas, the performance is made on a modern violin (and played with a performance tradition made popular far after the baroque era, complete with generous vibrato) and the modern piano.

Violinist Er-Gene Kahng’s notes from the recording bring light to the choice to record Handel’s sonatas with a piano and a modern violin, calling the choice “unusual.”

However, as much as we believe that original instruments would have been best in representing the music for which it was written, choosing the modern violin was a limitation and a preference I enjoyed balancing, especially in our efforts to interpret the sonatas on modern instruments with a historically informed performance perspective.

I’ve listened critically to this music and also listened to it as background music. As background music I found it unoffensive, but I did notice the balance in recording favoring the violin. The piano here is at least somewhat historical: Manze and Egarr, in their recording with baroque violin and harpsichord, advocate for a simple continuo treatment with one keyboard (instead of the bass being doubled, by say, a cello). But that stretch of the imagination is where “historically informed performance” probably ends.

Listening critically, the tempo choices were wisely chosen but I simply couldn’t enjoy these sonatas. Phrasing and dynamics, the constant vibrato, and the unequal pairing of violin with piano somehow robbed the music of what I’ve come to enjoy from these sonatas in recordings by Manze, Minasi, and others. And that’s where I have to leave it. They didn’t cross the threshold into Gould’s territory, in a sense, re-inventing the music where the performers added a significant, authentic voice to the performance. Instead, this is a well-intentioned performance by two music professionals who don’t specialize in baroque performance.

No doubt, some listeners will find a lot to enjoy in this release. Handel is remembered for works other than these, but there’s no denying his craft in these pieces, even, as Kahng remarks, those that may not have come from his pen.

For me, this recording is a pass. And that’s because I agree with the performers: “original instruments would have been best…” but it’s not just the instruments, it’s the historical, copasetic performance tradition that brings this music to life.

—Sebastian Herrera

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