HANDEL: Trio Sonatas for Two Violins and Basso Continuo [TrackList follows] ‒ The Brook Street Band ‒ Avie AV2357, 76:10 (3/4/16) ****:
An entertaining and enlightening appendix to the Brook Street Band’s Handel Trio Sonata series.
Here we have the Brook Street Band batting cleanup, providing a fascinating appendix to their important survey of Handel’s music in the form of the trio sonata. I say “in the form of the trio sonata” because some of this music, including the “Oxford” Water Music recorded earlier (Avie AV0028) and the Sinfonia on the current disc are chamber music versions of orchestral works.
My first Brook Street Band experience, a recording of the Op. 5 Trio Sonatas, came as something of a shock. At the time, I had in my collection a recording of Op. 5 sonatas by a now-defunct group—I think it was called the Goldsbrough Trio, headed by Arnold Goldsbrough. I recall describing the Musette from Op. 5, No. 2, as played by this group as “haunting,” an adjective I wouldn’t readily apply to the music of Handel. Imagine my surprise to hear this piece as played by Brook Street: gone was the lulling, sauntering pace of the Goldsbrough, and instead, there was a lilting, almost swinging gait to the music, with no Romantic hovering over this or that nicety of the score. The piece had lost its haunting quality, but there was also no question in my mind that this was the real thing interpretively.
And so it is with this latest disc from the Band. Since it includes uncollected works across the spectrum of Handel’s composing career, the program gives a fascinating glimpse into the progress of Handel and his musical style. We start with the Sinfonia, which has all the earmarks of Handel’s style in his years as a fledgling opera composer in Hamburg. It’s confident, buoyant, very entertaining even if it is hardly a work of great talent. That would come, as evidenced here by the later works with a vocal-music connection: Trio Sonata in B-flat, subtitled “Esther,” and Trio Sonata in C, subtitled “Saul.” The former is a reduction of the overture for the first version (c. 1718) of Handel’s oratorio Esther, written for the modest orchestral forces available at Cannons, the estate of Handel’s patron the Duke of Chandos. (The duke is also responsible for the great Chandos Anthems.) The “Saul” sonata is comprised of music that appears in the overture, sinfonia, and elsewhere in Handel’s 1738 oratorio of the same name. As cellist Tatty Theo mentions in her brief but informative notes to the recording, the trio sonata and oratorio are inextricably linked, forming a chicken-and-egg relationship. Which came first can’t be guessed.
The Trio Sonatas in G Minor and E Major date from the same period, circa 1719, which corresponds with Handel’s time in Dresden, where he was dispatched to recruit opera singers for the Royal Academy. Apparently, scholars have some doubts about their authenticity. I can only say they aren’t my favorite works on the disc, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t fully Handelian.
The Trio Sonata in C Minor from around 1718 exists in versions in two different keys, the one in C minor appearing first, hence its designation as HWV 386a. Like the “Esther” and “Saul” sonatas, it benefits from some fine melodies, one borrowed from Handel’s opera Agrippina and one high jacked from Hamburg composer Reinhard Keiser’s opera Octavia—among Handel’s favorite borrowings, seemingly, given that he used the tune in no fewer than four of his works.
The Brook Street Band plays all this music with its usual bravura—and where called for, deep tenderness—resulting in a highly appealing program, and history lesson, that any fan of the Baroque should savor. As usual, Avie records the group somewhat closely, underscoring the lustiness of their approach to music they obviously love.
Sinfonia in B-flat, HWV 339
Trio Sonata in F, HWV 392
Trio Sonata in B-flat, HWV 50a “Esther”
Trio Sonata in G Minor, HWV 393
Trio Sonata in E, HWV 394
Trio Sonata in C Minor, HWV 386a
Trio Sonata in C, HWV 403 “Saul”
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