The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music trends: Getting a handle on Handel with Richard Egarr

November 9, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the benefits of the Early Music and Period Instrument movements is that, after almost two centuries, Georg Frideric Handel has finally moved out of the shadows of J.S. Bach and Vivaldi, who overwhelmed him in popularity, if not always critical esteem, for so long. HANDEL

There have been some terrific and effective advocates for Handel over the past two decades. When it comes to opera and oratorios as well as ensemble and chamber music, one would be hard-pressed to name more influential people than John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, Sigiswald Kuijken, Marc Minkowski and baroque violinist Andrew Manze, among others.

But I think the torch has now been passed the harpsichordist Richard Egarr, who a couple years ago took over as director the famed Academy of Ancient Music. Egarr1

(Madison listeners may recall the outstanding and exciting performance, Egarr and AAM turned it at the Wisconsin Union Theater several years ago.)

Anyway, I’m writing this because Egarr now seems to be methodically working his way through the prolific Handel for Harmonia Mundi – and the result have been outstanding. Egarr is exceptional.

The Handel cycle started with his award-winning performances of the Op. 3 Concerto Grossi. Since then he has done two volumes of organ concertos. (Personally, I’m not so fond of the organ, but the recordings are first-rate).

Now I have been listening to two recent volumes of smaller works: the Twelve Solos Sonatas, Op.1; and the Trio Sonatas Op. 2 and Op. 5. Both are 2-CD sets with outstanding performances that are matched by outstanding acoustics. HandelTrioSonatas

It’s hard to cheat in music this intimate. And the playing is as exceptional as the sonics.

It’s a cliche, but I especially find such upbeat baroque music to be great morning music. And this music is right up there with the best.

What’s so appealing? Well, it strikes me that Handel strikes a good balance between the energy and singing melodiousness of such Italian masters as Vivaldi and Scarlatti and the thicker, pithier, more difficult textures of the more German music of J.S. Bach and even Telemann. Handel, in short, seems a terrific synthesizer.

Mind you, I still see Bach as the Big Bang of classical music, which can roughly be divided up B.B. (Before Bach) and A.B. (After Bach). For example, I love Handel’s keyboard suites as performed on the modern piano by Keith Jarrett (yes, the jazz great), Sviatoslav Richter, Andrei Gavrilov and Murray Perahia.

Handel’s suites have great moments and great movements. But overall, they can’t compare to Bach’s French Suites, English Suites and Partitas plus both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Still, Handel deserves more of our attention – and Egarr’s superb recordings are a great way to do that. His Handel project for Harmonia Mundi is much overdue and much needed. I highly recommend it.

Especially with “Messiah” season approaching, it will be interesting to see if and when Egarr turns to Handel’s many operas and the oratorios.

Want do you think of Egarr and his Handel cycle?

Do you or don’t you like Handel?

Do you have a favorite Handel work?

A favorite Handel performer or recording?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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