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Handel: 8 Great Suites for Solo Harpsichord (HWV 426-433)

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Catalogue No: SOMMCD 095-2
Release Date: 02/01/2010
Number of Discs: 2
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We are very pleased to have the opportunity of adding this splendid 2-CD set of Handel’s Eight Great Harpsichord Suites into the SOMM catalogue. The harpsichordist is the supremely gifted and versatile Director of the London Handel Orchestra, Organist and Harpsichordist Laurence Cummings.

Laurence Cummings – Harpsichord

Recorded in collaboration with BBC Radio 3 and Handel House Museum in celebration of Handel’s 250th Anniversary.

The recording took place at 25 Brook Street, London W1 – now known as the Handel House Museum, which was home to George Frideric Handel from 1723  until his death in 1759. This landmark address is where he composed some of the greatest music in history including Messiah, Zadok the Priest and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and died on 14 April 1759. It is a special collaboration between BBC Radio 3 and Handel House Museum in Brook Street and we can do no better than quote the Introduction to the CD liner notes, as follows:-

“As part of the celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death BBC Radio 3 and the Handel House collaborated to produce this recording of Handel’s Great Harpsichord Suites. Handel composed these Suites before taking up residence at 25 Brook Street, now the Handel House, but it is likely that they were performed here many times. It was therefore, really rather wonderful to have been able to record these Suites in the very rooms where Handel himself would have played them; both for his own enjoyment and for the various audiences he regularly gathered in the first floor front parlour.

The other defining element of this recording is Laurence Cummings’ invaluable commitment. Without his support and superlative playing and interpretation this recording would not have been possible. In addition Laurence’s own close musical connection to Handel and to the building, as a trustee of the Handel House, made his performance particularly pertinent.

Edward Blakeman, Editor, Radio 3
Sarah Bardwell, Director, Handel House

The following edited excerpts are taken from Terence Best’s CD liner notes for this recording:

The eight suites of 1720

“Handel wasn’t only known as a great composer for the human voice, the creator of operas, cantatas, anthems and oratorios; but in his lifetime he was also renowned as a brilliant keyboard player, indeed it seems that at times this was his main claim to fame. As well as displaying a dazzling virtuosity and a remarkable gift for improvisation, he composed some superb music for keyboard instruments. The harpsichord music was no doubt composed for his own pleasure, the enjoyment of his friends and the instruction of his pupils.

Handel had composed music for the keyboard as early as 1706 but the large number of pieces which survive from about 1712, show a certain stylistic immaturity, compared to his later works for the keyboard, which he composed around 1717, when he once more took up composition for the harpsichord after a break of about 11 years. By now his style had matured and become much more adventurous, freer and less dependent on the conventional formulas characteristic of the Suites.

Whatever reasons Handel had for composing these works, for a time he seems not to have contemplated publication; but soon his London publisher, John Walsh forced his hand. Around 1719 or 1720 he printed Handel’s manuscript copies in collusion with  the Amsterdam firm of Jeanne Roger. The plates were prepared by Walshe’s engravers (with many mistakes), with the edition bearing  Jeanne Roger’s name on the title page. As a riposte to this pirated edition,  Handel took out a Royal Privilege in 1720, which protected his work for fourteen years and he then issued his own edition of Keyboard pieces, as Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin… Premier volume.

In his preface to this edition, the composer says:

“I have been obliged to publish some of the following lessons because surrepticious and incorrect copies of them had got abroad. I have added several new ones to make the work more usefull which if it meets with a favourable reception: I will still proceed to publish more reckoning it my duty with my small talent to serve a Nation from which I have receiv’d so Generous a protection.”
G.F. Handel

The 1720 collection has a remarkably wide range of styles, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Handel’s musical experience up to that time; alongside the traditional elements of the Franco-German suite, there are five fugues, movements in the Italian style, and a substantial French overture adapted from the orchestral one composed for the Cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno. Although the word “Suites” occurs on the title-page, and stands at the head of each work, there is no attempt at a traditional suite structure and this variety is one of the most striking features of the collection: Suite II, for instance, has none of the traditional elements, Suite V is perhaps the best-known, because of the final set of variations which in the early 19th century acquired the romantic but entirely spurious nickname “The Harmonious Blacksmith”.

The 1720 set is justly famous, and it was one of the best-known collections of harpsichord music of the 18th century. Its contents show Handel’s originality and independence of mind, and his gift for drawing on different musical influences and unifying them by the power of his genius.”

Laurence Cummings is one of Britain’s most exciting and versatile exponents of historical performance both as a conductor and a harpsichord player. He was an organ scholar at Christ Church Oxford where he graduated with first class honours. In 1996 he was appointed Head of Historical Performance at the Royal Academy of Music which has led to both baroque and classical orchestras forming part of the established curriculum. Since 1999 he has been Music Director of the London Handel Festival where performances have included productions of Deborah, Athalia, Esther, Agrippina, Sorsame, Alexander Balus, Hercules, Samson, Ezio, Riccardo Primo, Allesandro and Tolomeo.

He has conducted opera productions for English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Gothenburg Opera, Garsington Opera, English Touring Opera, Opera Theatre Company, Linbury Theatre Covent Garden, Royal Academy of Music and productions in Croatia and Portugal. He made his US debut conducting Orfeo with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston.

He frequently conducts the English Concert and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, both in the UK and on tour and is a regular guest with Remix Baroque at the Casa da Musica Porto. He also works with the Britten Sinfonia, Hallé Orchestra, Basel Chamber Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Wiener Akademie, Ulster Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, Jerusalem Symphony, Irish Baroque Orchestra and Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra (including performances at the Spitalfields Festival).

His numerous recordings include the first recording of Handel’s newly discovered Gloria with Emma Kirkby and the Royal Academy of Music, several discs of Handel chamber works with the London Handel Players for SOMM, including the premiere recording of the 1732 version of Esther with the London Handel Orchestra & Chorus, recital discs of solo harpsichord music (including music by Louis and Francois Couperin), a solo disc of Handel arias with Angelika Kirschlager and the Basel Chamber Orchestra and Handel Duets with Lawrence Zazzo, Nuria Real and the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

On This Recording

  1. Keyboard Suite No. 1 (Set I): I. Prelude
  2. Keyboard Suite No. 1 (Set I): II. Allemande
  3. Keyboard Suite No. 1 (Set I): III. Courante
  4. Keyboard Suite No. 1 (Set I): IV. Gigue
  5. Keyboard Suite No. 2: I. Adagio
  6. Keyboard Suite No. 2: II. Allegro
  7. Keyboard Suite No. 2: III. Adagio
  8. Keyboard Suite No. 2: IV. Allegro
  9. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): I. Prelude
  10. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): II. Allegro
  11. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): III. Allemande
  12. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): IV. Courante
  13. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): V. Air and 5 variations
  14. Keyboard Suite No. 3 (Set I): VI. Presto
  15. Keyboard Suite No. 4 (Set I): I. Allegro
  16. Keyboard Suite No. 4 (Set I): II. Allemande
  17. Keyboard Suite No. 4 (Set I): III. Courante
  18. Keyboard Suite No. 4 (Set I): IV. Sarabande
  19. Keyboard Suite No. 4 (Set I): V. Gigue
  20. Keyboard Suite No. 5: I. Prelude
  21. Keyboard Suite No. 5: II. Allemande
  22. Keyboard Suite No. 5: III. Courante
  23. Keyboard Suite No. 5: IV. Air, “Harmonious Blacksmith”
  24. Keyboard Suite No. 6 (Set I): I. Prelude
  25. Keyboard Suite No. 6 (Set I): II. Largo
  26. Keyboard Suite No. 6 (Set I): III. Allegro
  27. Keyboard Suite No. 6 (Set I): IV. Gigue [Presto]
  28. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): I. Overture
  29. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): II. Andante
  30. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): III. Allegro
  31. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): IV. Sarabande
  32. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): V. Gigue
  33. Keyboard Suite No. 7 (Set I): VI. Passacaille
  34. Keyboard Suite No. 8 (Set I): I. Prelude
  35. Keyboard Suite No. 8 (Set I): II. Allegro
  36. Keyboard Suite No. 8 (Set I): III. Allemande
  37. Keyboard Suite No. 8 (Set I): IV. Courante
  38. Keyboard Suite No. 8 (Set I): V. Gigue