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Organ Concertos, op. 7

Handel op7 egarr The AAM records the opus 7 collection of organ concertos by George Frederick Handel on Harmonia Mundi, including HWV 485, 264, and 442, and the concerto in F, BWV 295 "The Cuckoo & The Nightingale," with soloist and director Richard Egarr. He describes, in the booklet, these extra songs as "close to his heart." The solo pieces are for harpsichord. The AAM has become, under Egarr, one of my go-to bands; I've seen them perform twice here in the U.S. under Egarr, and each concert has been superb. A big reason, I feel, is Egarr's leadership at the keyboard. If you've watched any of his videos, you can tell he's a casual sort of guy who isn't fussy about getting dressed up to perform, but he's uncannily smart and witty. His playing isn't always an analogue to his personality, but it has come out more-so in person, when he's performing live, than when he's in on record. This collection is the first I've purchased of the Handel organ concerti, although I previously have auditioned their op. 3 concerti grossi. In my collection are Handel organ concertos by the Brandenburg Consort and also the English Concert with Simon Preston. First, with those "extra" pieces which fill out the second CD, I liked the harpsichord pieces very well. Egarr's playing here pretty much echoes his style with the concertos: he's not very stiff at all. That's not to say he's arhythmic, either, but that he's a little sloppy with time. And that's not a criticism, but praise. I don't like baroque music, with all of its measured consistency of eighth and sixteenth notes sounding like a MIDI box. Between the meantone tuning on Egarr's harpsichords and his organic style, the pieces, for me, carry more gravitas, such as in the fugue, HWV 264. In the opening to the Cuckoo concerto (HWV 295), I'm reminded of a quality that permiates almost every track here: an excellent foundation with a rich, substantial basso continuo. The opening tempo is marked Larghetto, and by nearly the end opens the opportunity for the organ to tickle us with some filigree. It's a pretty low-key opening. The more familiar first Allegro comes in strong, maybe not as fast as I've ever heard, but it's got a bounce to it. What's remarkable here as in the other movements, is the "sound space" that the orchestra and organ were captured. I often speak of the acoustic space captured in recordings, and when the small(-ish) organ is captured by itself, you might picture it in a small room with a high ceiling. When the orchestra comes in full force, with oboes barking in unison with the violins, it's quite remarkable what was captured. In every instance, the AAM has rarely sounded quite as good, and I think that's because they're using a richer orchestration and because they're in a very sympathetic space in which to record. Egarr's solo work in HWV 295 is playful and more idiomatic of the sounds of nature than I often remember hearing. The recording, I might add, too captures the sound of Egarr breathing to start the ensemble, and the mechanical sounds of the organ. During the "Organo ad libitum" middle movement, I can only imagine looking up, in such a delicious space, enjoying the cathedral's ceilings. Egarr tells us, however, that the appropriate venue for these pieces is likely not church, but the theater. And that is why, he explains, he has gone for a smaller chamber organ than a full pipe organ, as we'd find in a church. Egarr also notes that he's very interested in approaching this music in an authentic way, in regards to ornamental additions, improvisation, and with his knowledge of "voluntary" playing with mixing the notes between both dominant and tonic chords for a delicious "clash" of sound. And all of that comes to the forefront in the opening of the second concerto, HWV 307. And by the time the orchestra comes in, I'm glad they keep William Carter employed. His bass lute always cuts through the orchestral texture, and the sound is always a luxurious addition to the now-classic AAM sound. The third movement of the third concerto (HWV 308), marked Spiritoso, which the AAM obeys, is an odd contrapuntal number. By the time the organ comes in, I start to question this genre of music. By this time, Handel's style was pretty mature, that he likely felt he could fly anything he wanted to. The music consistently gives the opportunity to the organist to show off a bit, as we now doubt might imagine Handel being able to do without any pause. The fact that these "concertos" are each their own little world of design, some movements in the form of a French overture, others dance movements (menuets, gavottes, etc.) remind us that Handel could well have borrowed some of the ideas from other pieces. My favorite opening is from HWV 309, the concerto in d minor. The richness of the two-part opening in the bass is boozy with the sound of bassoons. It's a richness of sound and color that's frankly quite modern to my ears, myself never having experienced this sound from a baroque orchestra before. The organ, when it comes in a minute later, is really anemic, by comparison. It's lean sound could be enhanced with some real fancy finger work, but I felt Egarr held back here. All that richness is akin to foie gras diluted with a watery sauce. I'd be first convinced with this hot and coldness that the instrument Egarr chose was inappropriately matched to the beautiful sound capable of the AAM. But I think, really after contemplating this for a little bit, that the lean organ is spot-on. It forces the performer to enrichen the rather simple part they've been handed. All is rich by the end of the opening Adagio. The next movement, a rollicking Allegro is full of energy, first brought about by Egarr on the organ, and quickly enough echoed in amplitude from the AAM. Egarr goes into some unchartered territory by the time he is well into the third movement. He opens it with an interesting juxtaposition of chords to accommodate a change in key. We return to the minor key in the last movement, which is borrowed from Handel's own op. 3 concerti grossi. This movement, probably best of all, captures the full expression of Handel's genius and the sublime sound of Egarr's organ with his Academy. This release shows us that Handel wasn't a prescriptive type of composer. The collection of pieces teeter on the esoteric, which makes for performers challenges in presenting the music with consistency. Egarr and the AAM have taken on the challenge with their own brand of interpretation and fun. Above all else, they've stayed away from presenting this music too seriously. The real moments of genius emerge from the delicious sound this band is capable of coming together to produce, and in the playful interpretations of their conductor, who has succeeded in embedding his own moments of improvisational surprise. This is real performers music that ought to be enjoyed live. But I nevertheless encourage your purchase of this fine set.

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