on 28 November 2008
This brilliant new Brilliant Classics set is, as far as I can tell, as close as one can get to a complete recording of Handel's harpsichord suites at present. To my knowledge, its only competition in this regard is Yates's series for CHANDOS. Neither set offers the complete suites, but I'll explain later.
Borgstede is a superb Handel player, and he plays two superb harpsichords. Sometimes Handel expects the performer to improvise on unadorned chord progessions, and Borgstede is up to the creative challenge. His improvisation and ornamentation are historically informed, stylistically correct and convincing, inventive, and generously applied without overkill. This is not "sewing machine" Handel, but his rubato is always within the boundaries of the style. His technique and musicality are first-rate--surely on the same high level as, say Paul Nicholson, who has given us, sadly, only the first eight suites. The recording is excellent.
Despite all this, I won't be getting rid of Nicholson's Suites 1-8, if only because of his "Harmonious Blacksmith". In the last variation, his ornaments of foaming whirls of flamboyant sextuplets and even quicker divisions are absolutely thrilling. It's obvious Borgstede could have done something similar if he wished, but he chose not to. Of course, that's a valid interpretive decision, but Nicholson's "Blacksmith" is not to be missed!
Nevertheless, I highly recommend Borgstede to those looking for a relatively complete recording of the 1720 (Book I) and 1733 (Book II) sets of suites. I say "relatively complete," because my first objection is that Borgstede doesn't play ALL of Book II; my second, that he doesn't give us ALL of Handel's harpsichord suites--explanation follows:
Objection 1: Most harpsichordists who have recorded Handel suites have been content, at most, to play Book I and leave it at that (Nicholson included). Borgstede plays Book I complete--so far, so good. However, the last set of pieces in Book II (No.9) is a Prelude paired with a Chaconne. My gripe is that although Borgstede (and Yates) play the Prelude, neither plays the Chaconne. Yates merely omits it, but Borgstede substitutes William Babell's wild and crazy arrangement of the aria "Vo' far guerra" from the opera "Rinaldo."
FYI, Babell was a pupil and colleague of Handel's in London. He published several sets of what might be called "virtuoso paraphrases" of Handel arias, "Vo' far guerra" being the last. This is an ostentatious display piece, and, on a superficial level, exciting, although a bit lacking in musical substance and continuity. Handel's original structure is constantly interrupted by LONG passages of not particularly coherent technical display. Doubtless, until the advent of Philip Glass, this piece held the Guinness World Record for sheer number of successive repetitions of the same arpeggiated chord. Borgstede plays it with flair to burn, but where's the Chaconne?
Objection 2: Borgstede plays only 15 suites. The definitive Handel Barenreiter edition prints 17, including two "homeless" suites (in D minor and G minor, respectively numbered, in the old system, "No.15" and "No.16"). The Paul Wolfe and Richter/Gavrilov series BOTH include these, but Borgstede and Yates don't. A truly complete recording of Handel's suites should include these two fine works. However, as explained in the next paragraph, Wolfe and Richter/Gavrilov are not complete either. Admittedly, Brilliant doesn't tout Borgstede's set as complete. Still, it would have been nice to finally have a complete recording--at last!
RE THE OLD NUMBERING SYSTEM: Some recordings using older editions (i.e., Wolfe and Richter/Gavrilov) use a numbering system that radically alters the order and contents of Book II. Perhaps the following table will be helpful. As can be seen No.2 isn't a suite at all. I mention this to allay concerns of prospective purchasers who may be wondering "Where's Book II, Suite No.2?"--the short answer "There isn't any!" Yes, it's odd that the second suite of the set is numbered "No.3"--that's just the way it is:
HWV434--Book II, Suite No.1 (missing from the old order)
HWV435--Book II, No.2 (Chaconne) (missing from the old order)
HWV436--Book II, Suite No.3 (old number 10)
HWV437--Book II, Suite No.4 (old number 11)
HWV438--Book II, Suite No.5 (old number 12)
HWV439--Book II, Suite No.6 (old number 9)
HWV440--Book II, Suite No.7 (old number 13)
HWV441--Book II, Suite No.8 (old number 14)
HWV442--Book II, No.9(Prelude & Chaconne--missing from old order)
(In the old system, No.15 and No.16 are the "homeless" suites in D minor and G minor.)
It's difficult to understand the omission of HWV 434 in the old system, because Brahms used the "Air" of the third movement variations as the theme for his own "Handel Variations." By the way, HWV 437 contains the famous "Sarabande in D minor."
My bottom line about Borgstede's set is: 1.) OK, it's interesting to hear the Babell transcription just out of curiosity; 2.) OK, Babell may give us insight into Handel's own improvisational style; 3.) although I can understand Mr. Borgstede's eagerness to exploit such a virtuoso vehicle--there would have been PLENTY of room to include both it and the second Chaconne, as well as both of the "homeless" suites on these rather empty CD's, only ONE of which runs to over 60 minutes, and THAT one to only 60:34! Finish the job!
Still, even partial recordings of Book II do not exactly lay thick on the ground, and this really is a beautifully played set. So, despite my disappointment about the second Chaconne and the two "homeless" suites, it would be niggardly to withhold the fifth star on such a minor point, especially at this steal of a price.
Highly recommended, although I hope I've managed to make clear just what is really on offer here. Let's hope that Borgstede or Nicholson will follow up with a supplementary set, including the rest of the suites, some of the single pieces and maybe even some of the Babell arrangements!