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CD Review

George Frideric Handel

Avie 2357

Trio Sonatas for Violins & Continuo

  • Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV 393
  • Trio Sonata in E Major, HWV 394
  • Trio Sonata in F Major, HWV 392
  • Sinfonia in B Flat Major, HWV 339
  • Trio Sonata in C Major "Saul", HWV 403
  • Trio Sonata in B Flat Major "Esther", HWV 50a
  • Trio Sonata in C minor, HWV 386a
Brook Street Band
Avie AV2357 76:10
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The two previous releases in this excellent Handel chamber music series on Avie were released in 2005 (the Opus 5 set, 2068) and 2013 (the Opus 2 set, 2282); they were very well received – as does this third and last issue in the series deserve to be. Handel was the first occupant of number 25 Brook Street in London from 1723 until his death in 1759. The eponymous Brook Street Band comprises Rachel Harris and Farran Scott (Baroque violins), Tatty Theo (Baroque cello) and Carolyn Gibley (harpsichord).

This grouping of seven trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo has no opus numbers; indeed, the trios span a period of Handel's life of 35 years from the first decade of the eighteenth century in the case of HMV 339 (probably 1704 to 1706, and which exists both in trio sonata/Sinfonia format) and HMV 392 written probably in 1706 and/or 1707 in Hamburg. The other sonatas in this "Dresden" series of which HMV 392 is part are HMV 393 and 394, and may date from the composer's time there, from 1719.

HMV 386 exists in C minor and B minor, while the "Saul" trio sonata, HMV 403 was written at the same time as the opera. Like the Sinfonia some adaptation went into performing HMV 50a, the "Esther" (that oratorio's overture) as a trio sonata. Working on the definition that a trio sonata is so-called because two solo instruments work melodically with a third component, the basso continuo, these inclusions are all completely acceptable. This, of course, should be seen in the light of the practice of Handel and his contemporaries of reworking, "borrowing" and repurposing material throughout their/his œvre(s).

Given the Brook Street's dedication to the Baroque, and to Handel in particular, it's no surprise that its four members never content themselves with merely playing in clean and incisive ways (though that is just how they do play). Of additional appeal are a certain charity, as they "lean into" the music so as to inhabit what Handel, for all his apparent extroversion and dynamism, put at its center. And a will to convey to us just how vibrant and rich Handel's writing is, especially given the ubiquity of the genre for generations.

This is achieved partly through the members of The Brook Street Band's outstanding individual prowess as instrumentalists. Each obviously loves Handel in her own way. Each is able to dig her way into the essence of the composer's inventiveness through melody. Together the musicians extend the apparently simple (really, transparent) creativity in harmony and texture. And because this music spans so much of Handel's life, a certain richness emerges.

These musicians strike a happy and profitable balance between pace, momentum, liveliness on the one hand; and close examination of the intricacies of each portion of this music on the other. Never hurried, yet never really lingering, they manage to pull out a kind of inevitability in the directions taken by the strings as they modulate from one key to another. At the same time, there is freshness, surprise and novelty. Such is evident from the very first movement – of the B♭ allegro [tr.1] – on this CD, which lasts over an hour and a quarter. Usually alternating fast and slow movements, and usually andante and allegro at that, it is important for the players of such superficially approachable music consequently to do two things.

On the one hand to preserve and expose the music's structure, its progression of thematic and sonic idea and the satisfactory nature of its conclusion after a "journey", however brief (only three single movements here are over four minutes in length; none is five). And on the other to reveal those aspects which are far from superficial… nuances of key, the ways in which instrumental color creates its own tension, indeed, the very qualities of individual and ensemble instrumental sounds by the no more than four soloists here. The attachment to, and enjoyment of, the music by The Brook Street Band, while never intrusive or indulgent, is evident and stimulating. Such an approach, where they have got to know the music over time, rather than treated it only as potential repertoire, significantly helps in bringing out the variety of the music… hectic passages, reflective ones, morose and joyful movements and ones decidedly aimed to conclude the work. Each Trio Sonata is performed with an eye to its wholeness, rather than a series of five four-movement and two three-movement expositions.

Theirs is a fresh, cultured, spontaneous sound – surely what Handel wanted when writing these pieces, or when adapting them from his larger-scale works. Polished, but not stolid (listen to the contrasts between the middle two movements of the HWV 392 in F, [tr.s 5,6], for instance), this is clearly not music which the performers could be mistaken for producing on the spot for the first time. Yet it has a quiet depth redolent, almost, of the world of Handel's contemporary, J.S. Bach. And missing none of the latter's elegance. And it is elegance, gentility, understatement; neither smoothness or blandness.

The acoustic of Raveningham Church in Norfolk is close, crisp, transparent and entirely appropriate for the repertoire. None of the instruments is too forward; yet none lacks clarity and a distinct "personality" or color. The booklet concentrates on helping the non-specialist in this (and associated) corners of Handel's repertory to pick their way through what's been included, and why. If you have the other two CDs in this series, don't hesitate to add this one. If you want top-notch playing of Baroque chamber music which combines thoughtfulness with vivacity, and haven't discovered the strengths of the Brook Street Band, this is a good place to start.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey