Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Veni, Vidi, Vici: Vinikour essays Handel’s Harpsichord Suites on CD

George Frideric Handel: Harpsichord Suites (1720), Chaconne in G Major (1732-3)

Jory Vinikour, Harpsichord

Instrument by John Phillips, 2001, copy of Johann Heinrich Gräbner of 1739, Dresden

Recorded: First Scots Presbyterian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Recording: Delos DE 3394 (2009)

Review by Rodney Punt

Music lovers know the Handel of extravagant operas, their cousins the oratorios, and certainly the orchestral Water and Royal Fireworks music. We are less likely to have encountered his eight Harpsichord Suites of 1720, though by now there are many recordings on both harpsichord and piano. Far more famous in the genre are the nearly contemporaneous English Suites of J. S. Bach of 1725. Where the suites of Bach often seem like serene, internalized contemplations on dance forms, those of Handel brim over with exuberant impetuosity. If the Bach suites are best appreciated in the evening, those of Handel seem designed for our morning constitutional - as bracing as an ocean spray or the first rays of a dawning sun.

The suites derive some of their heady atmosphere from Handel’s free use of musical form and technique, with few strict fugues and many darting changes of pace and motif. It has often been noted that Handel composed for the ear, not the eye, and these suites are no exception. In many cases the individual pieces have an improvisational quality, and may well have originated as such. We also often hear in them music borrowed from or used later in other works; listening for examples is half the fun.

We have enjoyed harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s virtuosity in the Los Angeles area before, most notably in his April 2007 outing with Musica Angelica, where he gave a brilliant performance of the Bach Concerto in d minor. Here he surpasses that performance with an instrument fully up to the sonorous demands of these suites. The Gräbner harpsichord is particularly rich, with a deep bass buzz adding a pleasing cushion for the soprano sparkle of the upper registers. In the many dialogue moments between soprano and bass lines, this equality of timbre pays off nicely. The instrumental placement in the recording is just right – not too close, nor too distant.

Vinikour’s performance is propulsive, his rhythms nicely gauged with just the right hesitations at cadences and phrases. His ornamentation is fully integrated into the musical fabric, which is to say it is natural and unselfconscious. In every sense, Vinikour, an extrovert performer by nature, has fully realized this music. It’s as if the composer himself were performing for us.

The two-CD set of Delos is a model of its kind. In addition to the eight “Great” Suites, there is a bonus inclusion of the Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435, a work which would take many guises over the years; Vinikour here performs the traditional version. Vinikour’s own intelligently written liner notes aid the listener with important details of the works offered.

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