Handel: Suites 1-5 (CD)

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Martin Souter

Handel's suitesfrom 1720, played on the c. 1720 William Smith harpsichord from the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, University of Oxford. This instrument may have been owned by Handel himself, and its fine, clear sound is well suited to these famous works, which include the Air and Variations known as 'The Harmonious Blackbird'.

Handel's Harpsichord

The portrait of Handel by Philip Mercier, one of the most fashionable painters in London in the mid-eighteenth century, is the only authentic portrait of the composer which shows a harpsichord. Handel is leaning, quill in hand and with manuscript on the table in front of him, on a single manual harpsichord. The portrait dates from 1731 and was probably painted for the composer himself - an inscription on the back records that Handel gave it to one of his patrons, a Mr. Harris. The harpsichord in the portrait is almost certainly Handel's own, as it is unlikely that he would have wished to be shown in a portrait with an instrument that had nothing to do with him; indeed, the music in front of him in the portrait may even be sketch work for the keyboard suites published in London in 1733.

The William Smith harpsichord on this recording is thought to be that in the portrait. This instrument, dating from around 1720 and carrying the inscription 'Gulielmus Smith Londini fecit' has been bequeathed to the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in the Faculty of Music, Oxford University. Scholars have been delighted to see the reappearance of such an important Handelian instrument after it had apparently languished in obscurity for over two centuries.

Many of the design and decorative details of the Smith harpsichord and that in Mercier's painting are the same. Not only do the overall dimensions and scale of the two instruments coincide, but even the two stop knobs are in the same place. Furthermore, the keys are similarly constructed in both their materials - ivory and ebony - and their dimensions, including such minute details as the sloping angle on their sides and fronts.

The sharp keys follow the same "skunk tail" pattern and the fronts of the naturals are in both cases black, an unusual feature of instruments from this period. The few details which don't quite match could, scholars agree, be ascribed to artistic licence on Mercier's part; he may have moved the decoration on the face-board above the keys nearer to the stop knob in order not to leave an unfilled plain surface in the portrait or, indeed, in order to preserve a further detail of the harpsichord without disturbing the portrait's overall composition.

Even the unusually extended range of the Smith harpsichord, which starts at G in the bass (like the one in the portrait) and ascends chromatically for five complete octaves, suggests a further link with the composer. Could the Smith instrument be that which Handel bequeathed to his amanuensis Christopher Smith?

It has always been assumed that Handel's reference in his will to a "large harpsichord" was to a two manual instrument, but Handel may have had the large compass of this Smith instrument in mind. Very few instruments of the first half of the eighteenth century had such a large range and very little of Handel's printed keyboard music demands an instrument with two manuals for its successful performance.

The sound of the William Smith instrument is certainly right for the first five of Handel's 1720 suites. The harpsichord's simplicity of construction contrasts with the beauty and complexity of its sound and provides a perfect foil for Handel's music, in which apparently simple and extremely approachable melodies mask the composer's great ingenuity and profound musical skill.

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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Suite No 1 in A Major
1. Prelude
2. Allemande
3. Courante
4. Gigue

Suite No 2 in F Major
5. Adagio
6. Allegro
7. Adagio
8. Allegro

Suite No 3 in D Minor
9. Prelude
10. Allegro
11. Allemande
12. Courante
13. Air & Variations
14. Presto

Suite No 4 in E Minor
15. Allegro
16. Allemande
17. Courante
18. Sarabande
19. Gigue

Suite No 5 in E Major
20. Prelude
21. Allemande
22. Courante
23. Air & Variations 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'

Total Playing Time 78:51

Martin SouterWilliam Smith Harpsichord (London c. 1720)

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