With virtually no patina

Listening to WHRB yesterday in the car, I was floored by a recording of Perahia playing Handel’s Suite No. 3 in D minor, HWV 428. The final two movements—air with five variations, and presto—are thrilling. I’d never heard the piece, and I still don’t know much about the seventeen keyboard suites published in two collections—first eight (HWV 426–433), known as the Great Eight, in 1720 (at age thirty-five), then another nine (HWV 434–442) around 1733—beyond the one that gives us the “Harmonious Blacksmith” (HWV 430, in E major) and another (HWV 434, in B-flat major) from which Brahms borrowed the theme for his Handel variations. (Schiff has a splendid recording of the latter on a disc with the Brahms.)

My ignorance is not totally my fault: very little seems to have been written about the suites—they do not command the same attention as Bach’s French and English suites or the partitas—and the only near-complete recording I can find of all seventeen on piano is by Richter and Gavrilov, but inexplicably they leave out the resplendent 434. Here is what Hungarian-American musicologist Paul Henry Lang writes in George Frideric Handel (he speaks of eight suites in the second volume, but there were multiple printings, apparently, and ultimately a ninth was added):

Of all of Handel’s works it is the many harpsichord pieces that may provide a glimpse of his creative youth. This is natural, because keyboard music was the German cantor’s native soil. Chrysander published a collection of these pieces, to which he gave the title Klavierbuch aus der Jugendzeit. Here we can find many prototypes and original versions of some of the pieces reworked and published later. “Reworking” is the key to the uneven quality to Handel’s output in this area, for the keyboard pieces show a wide range in quality, from the slight and insignificant to the magnificent and highly artistic. When an old piece was used in its original shape—that is, when Walsh or a Continental pirate published it without Handel’s permission—the result was unworthy of the great composer. When Handel had a chance to “correct” a youthful piece we are dealing with an altogether different kind of music, and, of course, the new pieces added to the collection by the mature master are almost all first-rate Handel. The music is no longer that of a young provincial German composer but of an elegant, experienced, and knowledgeable international composer intimately acquainted with Italian and French music.

The success of these pieces was phenomenal; they were the most popular compositions of their sort in all of Europe. Published by John Cluer and Walsh as independent volumes of “Lessons,” selections often appeared both in London anthologies and in the pirated publications of Dutch, Swiss, French, and German printers. In sales the harpsichord volumes outdid by far Couperin’s, Rameau’s, and Bach’s similar collections. As usual when the business methods of the estimable publishing house of Walsh are combined with Handel’s own ways with his musical hoard, things become hazy as to time, place, and even the identity of the composer. The first volume of suites, of 1720, was not yet within Walsh’s grasp; it was published by John Cluer “for the Author.” These suites could not have been composed before the Italian journey. Perhaps some of them were written in Hanover, but, at any rate, they surely were thoroughly gone over for the “corrected” edition. The second set, published by Walsh in 1733, without Handel’s permission, also contains eight suites, but this music is considerably weaker than the 1720 collection, undoubtedly because the material, somehow filched by Walsh, was not subjected to Handel’s usual reconditioning treatment. Among other reasons that indicate an arbitrary collection is the neglect of tonal order. The scheme in the first book of suites is carefully arranged and contrasted: A major, F major, D minor, E minor, E major, F-sharp minor, G minor, F minor. In the second book there is no orderly succession, and it is most unlikely that Handel would have agreed to pairs of consecutive suites in the same key. Of the third set, published later, not only the date is uncertain: one wonders whether these “suites” were not put together by the publisher from single, unrelated pieces. Indeed, we are not even sure Handel had anything to do with this largely insignificant music.

It is a shame pianists do not play these more often. As Richter writes in his notebooks, “these Suites are veritable miracles, laminated in gold but with virtually no patina.”

Fortunately there are several recordings of 428, in D minor. Here’s a smattering of the ones I like, timestamped to the final two movements. Richter’s is the least exciting, even dull; he makes up for it with his verbal endorsement. As the other piano versions make clear, these pieces should not be relegated to the harpsichord repertoire—or the dustbin of musical history.

  • Gould, on harpsichord, played as if on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Daria van den Bercken, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Richter, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Perahia, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Shura Cherkassky, on piano

Air:

Presto:

  • Éric Heidsieck

Air:

Presto:

  • Ottavio Dantone, on harpsichord

Air, with a blow out at the end of the fifth variation:

Presto:

Reading

Burrows, Handel

Dean, The New Grove Handel

Lang, George Frideric Handel