HÄNDEL: “Concerti” (mostly organ concerti) – Holger Gehring, cond. & organist – querstand

“GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL: Concerti” = Overture to the Oratorio “Deborah” HWV 51; Organ Concerto Op. 4, No. 5, in F Major HWV 293;  Organ Concerto Op. 4, No. 2, in B Major HWV 290; Organ Concerto Op. 7, No. 5, in G Minor HWV 310; Organ Concerto Op. 7, No. 3, in B Major HWV 308, “Hallelujah Concerto” – Barockorchester der Kreuzkirche, Dresden / Holger Gehring, cond. and organ – querstand VKJK 1522, 64:26 (3/4/16) (Dist. by Naxos) ****: 

What do you know? Dogged scholarship in the service of musical truth offers a breath of fresh air in these oft-recorded works.

This recording is a labor of scholarly love that pays dividends in the finished product, mostly because it doesn’t betray the scholarship behind the music-making. Clearly, Kreuzorganist Holger Gehring has lived with and studied Handel’s music for quite some time, and his studies have led him to base tempi and other interpretive matters on rather surprising sources. But more about that later. First, a bit of historical background, some of which is provided by Gehring himself in his intriguing notes to this recording.

If you’re a Handel maven as I am, you’re perhaps familiar with at least parts of the story. Handel’s opera company at the Covent Garden Theatre was under assault by a rival company under the direction of Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, who managed to steal Handel’s prize singer, the famous castrato known as Farinelli (Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi—no wonder he went by a single moniker!). But actually Handel’s, and Porpora’s, chief rival was the new English ballad opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera being the most famous example. Besieged from two directions, Handel finally threw in the towel on Italian opera, producing his last (Deidamia) in 1741.

In the meantime, as a counterstroke, in the mid-1730s Handel began offering English oratorios to the public during the Lenten season. As a special draw, he included in the presentation of these works instrumental interludes: concerti grossi and organ concertos, with none other than the great man himself as soloist. The first batch of organ concertos, probably performed in 1735, were published as Opus 4 in 1738. The remaining six concertos collected as Opus 7 were published in 1761, two years after Handel’s death. These concertos were an instant hit with the public, being reprinted thirteen times by 1770.

Now, you may be asking, why the inclusion of the Overture to Deborah in a program focused on Handel’s organ concertos? Well, even though it belies the album title, the inclusion makes some sense as a curtain raiser since Organ Concerto Op. 4, No. 5, was probably first performed as an interlude to Deborah in March 1735. This context now established, we hear (in addition to the aforementioned concerto) Op. 4, No. 2, probably featured during a performance of Esther in March 1735; Op. 7, No. 5, performed during the staging of Theodora in March 1750; and Op. 7, No. 3, performed during a revival of Alexander’s Feast (1736) and the first performance of The Choice of Hercules in March 1751. Op. 7, No. 3, was Handel’s last orchestral composition; shortly afterward he went blind. An appropriate valedictory gesture is the opening Allegro modeled on the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah.

Holger Gehring speaks of his performing versions of the concertos as “reconstructions,” and rightly so since he tries to recreate the listening experience of the first audiences as much as possible. Therefore, he chooses appropriate contemporary pieces to act as voluntary introductions to the works; that would have been Handel’s practice in his own day. Also, and maybe a trifle more controversial, Gehring consults the “barrels,” or cylinders, that reproduce Handel’s music on two near-contemporary barrel organs: the Holland and Bute Barrel Organs. The former was built by Henry Holland, active during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, while the later was built for the Earl of Bute by clockmaker Albert Cumming. Importantly, the playing time of each of Handel’s concertos was supplied by the master’s own student, John Christopher Smith, Jr., and incorporated in the barrels produced by Cumming in 1762.

The result, as Gehring notes, is that the tempi he establishes in his performances of the concertos are swifter than usual. Sometimes, much swifter. Is this a problem for the listener? Not for this listener, certainly. Gehring’s performances have the ring of musical truth, especially compared to a version of the Opus 4 Concertos I took down from my shelves. Played by Peter Hurford and conducted by Joshua Rifken, a musical pioneer who first introduced one-singer-to-a-part in Bach’s choral music, this recording (on the Decca label) sounds almost Romantic in comparison. Some days, this is how I’ll choose to listen to Opus 4. My collection includes a more recently recorded set of the Opus 7 Concertos from Richard Egarr (on Harmonia mundi), who favors slow tempi, though his scholarship is generally impeccable. These, too, are fine performances that I’ll certainly return to, but Gehring provides a very different—and very compelling—alternative, well played by his original-instruments band from Dresden.

Another interesting feature of the recording is the organ Gehring uses. Since Handel would have performed on an organ placed at the center of his orchestral forces, he must have used an instrument similar to the one featured in the current recording. A much less stentorian organ than the usual Baroque giants installed in churches and cathedrals, Handel’s instrument would have featured horizontal pipes, providing the clear sightlines he needed to keep his orchestral players on cue. If you can’t imagine an organ with horizontal pipes, join the club; I couldn’t either until I saw the photographs of the so-called liegende Orgel (“lying-down organ”) at the Kreuzkirche in Dresden.

Compared with the distant, churchly recording that Decca afforded Hurford and Rifkin, the recording on the querstand disc is very much up-front, with a prominent harpsichord continuo and, possibly on the downside, some extraneous action and wind noises from the organ. Then again, maybe you’ll think they simply add to the air of authenticity. I wouldn’t disagree, and indeed I find Gehring’s “reconstructions” and the recording of them an enlightening experience.

—Lee Passarella

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