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01 March 2019

41. audacity

I recently came across Richard Egarrs recordings of the Handel organ concertospieces I have known for decades, but that I learned first from the recordings of E. Power Biggs (with Adrian Boult) and Simon Preston (with Trevor Pinnock).  Much as I respect and enjoy Biggs and Preston, the Egarr recordings have a impetuous audacity that strives to emulate the (basically unwritten) example of the composer.

To take only the most striking example, at the end of the second movement of Op. 7 no. 4, where Handels 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 Egarrs 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.
I spell it thus (D-sharp against D-flat) because that is how these notes are functioning:  chromatic side-steps up from D to E and down from D to C.  The resulting passing dissonance should not be spelled as a diminished third (which would indicate converging rather than expanding motion); a major second would be meaningless.  Audacious is the only word.  The interval is not part of Handels musical style, but it has the (I think) appropriate consequence of directing the spotlight onto the soloist.  What will he do next?

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 wasnt 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.
Susan McClary famously characterized the texture of the first movement of Bachs fifth Brandenburg concerto as one in which the harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support then begins to compete with the other soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece [p. 28].  How much more audacious was it for Handel to upstage the singer of an aria, left lingering on stage while the composer showed off?  The aria includes collaborative passages in which the soloist and the harpsichord run in parallel as a sort of duet, and where Signora Pilotti (for whom this aria was written) holds a note for several bars while a harpsichord obbligato is conspicuously busy underneath, but there is another totally free sectionleft to the discretion of the soloistin the closing ritornello, while again the singer is left at loose ends on stage.  Moreover, as it is a da capo aria, all this happens twice (with, presumably, different extemporizations). 

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 theres 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
If we look up the aria in the new HHA volume presenting the 1711 version of Rinaldo, an almost identical realization is given not in an appendix but in the main textwithout even a footnote to indicate that its source is not easily authenticated.  One has to look elsewhere in these scholarly editions to find that the Harpsichord piece performd by Mr Hendel comes from a keyboard arrangement, Songs in the Opera of Rinaldo; this was originally published by John Walsh in the weeks after the February premiere (and a scan of that first edition is available as IMSLP #71438), but this elaborate keyboard part for Vo far guerra materialized only in a later printing (with a new title page Arie dellopera di Rinaldo, apparently June 1711).

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 Handels organ concertos, essentially arguing that all of this could easily be cobbled together from the figuration of Handels other bravura works.  (Ive 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 its 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 Walshs 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
There is no reason to assume that Handel ever notated the Rinaldo cadenzas; particularly as he apparently had no professional relationship at this time with the publisher, John Walsh, it is much more likely that another hand supplied these keyboard passages.  The scribe seems to have been William Babell (c. 16901723), who would have heard Handels original performances at first hand, as he was a violinist in the Kings Theatre where Rinaldo was produced.  Babell was much more widely known in his short life as a keyboardistindeed, this reputation was strong enough that Johann Mattheson would cite him in 1739 as possibly the greatest organist of the age.  Here is the relevant bit of Matthesons Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (as translated in Deutsch):
SOURCE:  cropped scan of Deutsch, Handel:  A Documentary Biography, p. 485, with a portion of Mattheson.
Even though Mattheson never heard Babell, this is remarkable praise.  It is known that he studied with Johann Christoph Pepusch in London; that he studied under Handel is not certain, but he was clearly in Handels circle.  Moreover, in 1717 Walsh published his Suits of the most Celebrated Lessons Collected and Fitted to the Harpsicord or Spinnet by Mr. Wm. Babell with Variety of Passages by the Author.  This was a tremendously successful publication, and remained in print (from one pirated edition or another) throughout the eighteenth century.  Note the last item in the table of contents:
SOURCE:  cropped from (incomplete) scan available at archive.org.  A complete monochrome scan is available at IMSLP #279417.
The Vo far guerra in the Suits of Celebrated Lessons is considerably more elaborate than that published in Arie dellopera di Rinaldo a few years prior.  Graham Pont has probably devoted more attention than anyone else to the Handel/Babell connection, with several intriguing articles published over two decades.  From the first of these, he has contended that the substance of the harpsichord elaborations were Handels rather than Babells (and in subsequent articles he demonstrates that there were a number of copies of this made by people close to Handelalthough he also shows that the text kept changing).

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 Babells 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 itor one version of itin 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.
Gotta love that beaming!

If the original aria wasnt 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 crescendodecrescendo effect, achieved by a thickening and subsiding of the texture:
SOURCE:  ibid., p. 239
Perhaps this conveys some element that originated with Handel.  (Perhaps.  I doubt it.  There is nothing else I know from his pen that is remotely like this.)  If so, I suspect that Babells audaciously over-extended cadenza strings together ideas that Handel might have used in different performances of Rinaldo, not ever intending them to go together, and connected by who-knows-what.  Another speculation occurs to me:  maybe Handel did not conduct all the performances, and Babell (who must have been the finest keyboard player in the orchestra) took over for the harpsichord solos, later reworking his ideas from those extemporizations into the work that was eventually published as a lesson.   (For a fine recording of Babells lesson, you cannot do better than Erin Helyard’s.)

For one more audacity, René Jacobss 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 actor rather, it redirects all attention to the pit.  (Forty-five percent of this track is taken up just by the cadenza after the singers last cadence.) I think this decision is a serious mistake, but I concede that at least
  1.  it makes the da capo different than the first time through, 
  2.  maybe this shifting of attention does less damage on a recording than a live performance, and 
  3.  it is audaciously well played.