My only exposure to Handel's solo harpsichord music was through a 1980s CD by Trevor Pinnock and a later recording on piano by Keith Jarrett. In general, I found Pinnock's instrument to be slighly noisy and his playing is very exacting; it's metronome friendly. Jarrett, on the other hand, could have been more expressive and the variations in tempo among movements was not great enough, for my taste. Both recordings left me feeling Handel's greatest achievements were probably not his works for solo keyboard.
In this recording by Richard Egarr, who is no stranger to Handel's music, having previously recorded his works in connection with the Academy of Ancient Music, a Joel Katzman harpsichord is used, brightly-tuned "high" to match the pitch standard believed to be in use by Handel. Published in 1720, these were Handel's first foray into publishing keyboard works in London. We might even compare this collection to Bach's opus 1, the Six Partitas.
Egarr's instrument is captured well slightly right in the stereo image, and comes across as "bright and sparkling" when your volume is set appropriately on the stereo. It's a nice instrument and as sometimes is a challenge, it's captured well by the engineers from Harmonia Mundi.
Having heard Egarr in public with the AAM, he can get a little excited and both through his conducting and his movemenets, come across as a little theatrical. It's the type of showmanship, we might call it, that rarely gets put into a recording. I don't point it out as criticism, but instead like it when live performances have the excitement level turned up.
Egarr really poured on the ornaments in his reading of Handel's organ concertos with the AAM. He's less exuberant here. I know it's standard to save the real theatrical stuff for the excitement of a live concert. The compromise is okay. Good taste instead is on display here, with Egarr balancing the needs of the music and the extreme capabilities of the performer.
I think it's fair to say that among this 8 sonatas there are some movements that are real gems. There are others that simply, to my ears, aren't not as finely wrought. Comparing Handel's 8 to Bach's 6 is unfair, likely; Bach wrote better music all around. However, where Bach's music celebrates an equality in voices and counterpoint, Handel seems to favor a melodic right hand. HWV 433 contains a nice fugue marked Allegro, just in case you might think he can't write in good counterpoint, he certainly can. Egarr has the challenge of a lot of filigree and ornaments. They all come across in full baroque splendor: all those notes are played well and the affect sounds natural and idiomatic.
Egarr notes that Handel's writing is perhaps not as idiomatic for the instrument as it could be, giving a special technical challenge to the performer. I have not studied these myself, and so I have no expertise at any claim to their challenging nature. But I will say what I hear in many cases is well-wrought ideas that could take on a multitude of flavors, being transposed or re-arranged for a full orchestra, or the organ, and in fact, one movement is borrowed from his opus 3 no. 6 concerti grossi, featuring an organ solo (also recorded by Egarr and the AAM on Harmonia mundi). It must have been popular; it too appears in the opus 7 concerto in D minor for organ. Egarr renders it with most swiftness in the version for solo harpsichord in this recording. Handel's probably at his best when he entertains the variation form, lending complexity to the movement as it naturally evolves into something grand.
I like Egarr's playing a lot; he's not a slave to the metronome, but he plays consistently and really whips off the florid runs in a league with other top-class harpsichordists. He adopts an un-equal tuning that really gives color to certain movements. I like it, for when Handel modulates to a few keys away from center an exotic flavor comes about that's easily heard, I think, in the first track of the double CD set.
In the end, when you combine the music of one of the Baroque masters, with a performer who has taken care to craft the sound and quality of his instrument and can perform the technical hurdles with athletic finesse, you have the making for an excellent musical result. It only helps more that Egarr is a sensitive musician who possesses ample reserves of style and knows what sounds good. Egarr feels secure in this repertoire, and I have to admit I enjoyed this solo recital moreso than his reading of Louis Couperin (which I think has more to do with Couperin than Egarr), and his Bach recital 'Per cembalo solo.'