To take only the most striking example, at the end of the second movement of Op. 7 no. 4, where Handel’s instruction reads merely “Organo ad libitum,” Egarr uses that rarest of intervals, the doubly-augmented unison/octave, to effect the modulation from D to F major, for his interpolated slow improvisation.
|SOURCE: my transcription of this moment (the transition from Track 15 to 16) on disc I of Egarr’s recordings of Handel's Op. 7 (and more) with the Academy of Ancient Music; Harmonia Mundi HMU 807447.48 (2009). The recording is streamed on Spotify here.|
Handel himself seems to have relished the spotlight: he used his organ concertos mainly in performances of his oratorios, where during the breaks between sections he could have all the attention to himself. But he wasn’t above stealing the show from his highly-paid vocal soloists. His first London opera, Rinaldo (1711) includes a remarkable moment at the end of Act II when Handel apparently wanted to divert the attention at least temporarily from the stage to the pit. His autograph of the aria “Vo’ far guerra” has disappeared, but the early copies indicate that in the opening ritornello there was to be an extended extempore passage for harpsichord (Cembalo), for the composer himself to display his gifts:
|SOURCE: Opening of “Vo’ far guerra” (Rinaldo, Act II) in a copyist’s manuscript held by the British Library (f. 91r of R.M. 19.d.5); scanned from Graham Pont, “Handel versus Domenico Scarlatti: music of an historic encounter” in Göttiger Händel-Beiträge IV (1991), p. 234.|
We do not know what Handel played in these ad libitum episodes, but I expect they could not have been lasted very long, as otherwise there would surely be some press comment. The Spectator lampooned the first production of Rinaldo, but no mention is made of excessive keyboard virtuosity in those reviews. Perhaps later in the run the solos became more extended and showy; certainly there’s no reason to assume that he always played the same thing.
When Chrysander published Rinaldo in the old complete works (HG vol. 58 in 1874), he had the portions of the autograph preserved in the Royal Music Library, and copies like that above, and so his edition has the same “Cembalo” instruction with no indication of what to play. After doing a little more legwork and tracking down more sources, he published Rinaldo again (HG vol. 58 [bis] in 1894), including both the 1711 and 1731 versions. “Vo’ far guerra” was cut from the 1731 version, but for the 1711 version this time Chrysander added an appendix with a complete realization of the harpsichord solo:
|SOURCE: detail of revised edition of HG vol. 58 (1894), p. 117; from IMSLP #18974|
What originally prompted me to look at all of this for this post was finding a seminar paper I had written in graduate school that was comparing these keyboard passages with those found in Handel’s organ concertos, essentially arguing that all of this could easily be cobbled together from the figuration of Handel’s other bravura works. (I’ve scanned some of my examples for that paper here.) Now the glaringly obvious problem with my thesis is that all of my Handel examples post-date these Rinaldo performances by at least two decades; I picked the wrong music for comparison. Handel had written a concertante part for organ in his Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (Rome, c. 1707), but it’s not all that much like the published Rinaldo solos; the closest comparison would be his Sonata for Harpsichord with Double Keys (HWV 579), which Terence Best dates to c. 1707-08 [p. 125]. Best argues that BWV 579 “has no connection” with Walsh’s Rinaldo realizations. In that the text is different, Best is correct; but the similar figuration at least shows that Handelian origins of the latter are plausible.
|SOURCE: cropped scan of the beginning of HWV 579 as given in HHA Ser. IV Bd. 6, p. 80|
|SOURCE: cropped scan of Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography, p. 485, with a portion of Mattheson.|
|SOURCE: cropped from (incomplete) scan available at archive.org. A complete monochrome scan is available at IMSLP #279417.|
We thus have several different versions of the keyboard cadenzas (for lack of a better word) for "Vo’ far guerra," from the rather tame but still dramatically intrusive version that Walsh published in about 1715 (and which has become the main text of the HHA, tacitly presenting it as the work of Handel himself) to the wildly fantastic version Babell’s Suits that was surely never intended for operatic performance, but rather uses “Vo’ far guerra” as the medium for a solo keyboard showpiece. Chrysander published it—or one version of it—in HG vol. 48, and it must be some of the most visually-stimulating pages in the whole of that monumental edition:
|SOURCE cropped from IMSLP #18931 scan of HG vol. 48, p. 242 ; but there's much more where this came from.|
If the original aria wasn’t audacious enough, this blows it out of the water completely, with a variety of special effects. (Peter Holman, in a fascinating article that posits that Babell rather than Handel should get the credit for the first English keyboard concerto, characterizes Babell's music as a “mixture of boldness and limited compositional technique”; from my limited exposure to it, I have to agree.) There are remarkable moments, to be sure. Consider this compelling crescendo–decrescendo effect, achieved by a thickening and subsiding of the texture:
|SOURCE: ibid., p. 239|
For one more audacity, René Jacobs’s 2003 recording of Rinaldo (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901796.98) turns to the Babell lesson for inspiration for the harpsichord solos of “Vo’ far guerra” (starting about two minutes in). I think this choice absolutely spoils the dramatic momentum that ends the act—or rather, it redirects all attention to the pit. (Forty-five percent of this track is taken up just by the cadenza after the singer’s last cadence.) I think this decision is a serious mistake, but I concede that at least
- it makes the da capo different than the first time through,
- maybe this shifting of attention does less damage on a recording than a live performance, and
- it is audaciously well played.