HANDEL: Organ Concertos Op. 7; Chaconne in F Major; Fugue in G minor; Chaconne in G Major; Concerto in F Major “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” – Richard Egarr, organ, harpsichord and direction/Academy of Ancient Music – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807446.48 (2 discs) *****:
This is a set of Handel’s last instrumental concertos that was published after his death, in 1761. In addition to the six organ concertos of Opus 7 Richard Egarr has included as an encore the Concerto in F Major HWV 295, known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. He also switches from being the organ soloist on the chamber pipe organ to the harpsichord for three Handel keyboard works that also date from the last period of the composer’s life: A Chaconne and Fugue, and the 17-minute Chaconne in G Major. The latter is a serious demonstration piece using exactly the same bass and harmonic pattern used by Bach in his Goldberg Variations.
Egarr and the producers had to search for a chamber organ that had two manuals plus pedals, as unusually asked for in the Op. 7 first concerto. They ended up with a single-manual copy of a chamber organ from the first half of the 18th century and created two-manual and pedal effects thru recording tricks for the few passages in the concerto that demanded it. Egarr plays his original real-time improvisations in the “Organ ad libitum” movements of four of the concertos. He drew upon his early experience as an organist when “I would frequently have to spin out music whilst waiting for the clergy to start of finish their business.” A writer at the time reported that Handel frequently introduced each of the concertos with an improvised prelude.
Egarr already covered the other half of the Handel organ concertos – Op. 4 – in a previous double-SACD set for HM. The closest hi-res competition is the set of four SACDs in PentaTone’s RQR 4.0 series, originally recorded in 1975, of both Op. 4 & 7. Sonic comparison of the two shows the Egarr version to be a larger and richer-sound chamber orchestra, but the organ is less featured than in the PentaTone set. Although the RQR format is four-channel, without a center channel, the chamber organ in this set is more prominent and one even hears some clicks and clacks of changing stops which are not heard on the Egarr instrument. Although the more distant balance on the Egarr discs is perhaps better and the orchestra is fuller sounding, the somewhat wheezy organ of the PentaTone set sounds more authentic. There is, however, no indication of the 34-year-old age of the PentaTone recordings. I would be hard put to make a decision between the two sets of the Handel concertos.
– John Sunier