With recordings of Handel’s two published sets of Trio Sonatas, and a further volume of miscellaneous such works under their belts, The Brook Street Band now turn to the composer’s Sonatas for Violin (all but one of which appeared in the published editions of his Opus 1). Chamber music is perhaps not something one immediately associates with Handel, but these works date from various times during his career, and show some imaginative variety and charm.
These are fully committed and generally playful readings by Rachel Harris that do justice to the music’s inventiveness and melodic vitality. The vivacious semiquavers of HWV358’s opening are delivered with panache, its Finale in 12/8 time has an infectious lilt, and the fast movements of HWV361, 372 and 373 in bright major keys are robust, even if they could be taken more broadly or, in the alternative, a wider spectrum in dynamics for the sake of contrast. Ornaments are added in moderation but with a Vivaldian flourish when they are applied, and although more sustained passages are mostly radiant, some long notes from Harris’s violin come off with a wobble in tone which some may find distracting.
Except for the early HWV358, the Sonatas all follow the four-movement (slow-fast-slow-fast) pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa (i.e. shunning the use of dance forms) and, although the slow movements are often interludes, Harris does not short-change them, but rather invests each with considerable feeling. The more extensive Larghetto of HWV371 (probably Handel’s final chamber work) takes on a forlorn tragedy. Tatty Theo and Carolyn Gibley’s support is stylishly discreet, with the cello unanimously partnering the bass line of the harpsichord as though issuing from one mind.
The disc is capaciously but cautiously presented as “all nine of the violin sonatas that carried Handel’s name”. HWV368, 370, 372 and 373 are very likely spurious, having been surreptitiously included in the editions of the Opus 1. Theo’s informative liner notes leaves the question open, however, on the basis that we cannot be certain since autograph manuscripts are not known, and their clear Handelian qualities make them worth hearing in any case. Only HWV368 seems less fluent and idiomatic, and if the meandering chromatic turns of its first movement’s melody could call for a more piquant rendering by Harris, at least it is not marred by anything outlandish.
No instrument is specified in Handel’s manuscript for the Sonata in D-minor, HWV367a, but it could have been intended for the violin, just as much as for the recorder to which it is usually assigned. Its omission here is not discussed, although its seven-movement structure makes it unusual and it would also be of interest on account of its second movement that appears to borrow in modified form (and in a minor key) the theme of the ‘Hornpipe’ from the Water Music. Admittedly Naxos’s release of Handel’s complete music for violin also excludes it, but that does go one better in also featuring the independent single movements HWV408 and 412, yet Brook Street Band’s renditions are more consistently invigorating.
This is a captivating release, providing an attractive point of entry to little-known repertoire. One wonders if they plan to team up with woodwind players to record the remainder of Handel’s music in this genre. If so, such a survey would rival and perhaps replace previous editions by L’Ecole d’Orphée and the Academy Chamber Ensemble on the CRD and Philips labels respectively.