GMCD 7301 – Complete Recorder Sonatas by Handel (1685-1759)
Alan Davis – Recorder, David Ponsford – Harpsichord
FANFARE January/ February 2007
Davis and Ponsford believe that two’s company, three’s a crowd. They play Handel’s six recorder sonatas without the benefit of a basso continuo doubling of the harpsichord’s bass line, such as one hears an recordings by Michala Petri (Philips) and Philip Pickett (CRD, now Brilliant Classics). That suits me fine. Handel actually titled three of the works “Sonata a flauto e cembalon” when he could just as easily have titled them “Sonata a flauto e basso continuo,” so the current performers arguably are taking a more authentic approach. (“Flauto” usually meant a recorder, not a flute, which was designated as a “flauto traverso.”) Davis plays a recorder built in 1991 by Frederick Morgan after an instrument by Stanesby dating from the 1720s. Ponsford plays an Andrew Garlick harpsichord built in 1992 after an instrument by Jean-Claude Goujon dating from 1749.
Shorn of basso continuo, these sonatas sound more intimate than ever. They even have a poignant quality-even the ones in a major key-missing from the aforementioned recordings. Granted, that’s probably also a function of the period-style recorder’s breathier timbre and less steady pitch. Davis’s playing has a nicely vocal quality to it; indeed, one of the sonata movements was reused as an aria in Handel’s opera Alessandro. Also, both he and Ponsford avoid weighing the music down with ornamentation. This recording offers Handel’s complete recorder sonatas in their most appealingly unvarnished form. At the end of the CD, Ponsford plays the Harpsichord Suite No. 7 as a sort of bonus, and his solo performance is similarly eloquent, plain-spoken, and earnest. One textual matter needs to be mentioned. The Sonata in D Minor has seven movements; two of these are an Andante and an A tempo di minuet. Because there has been some question as to whether or not these movements actually belong to the Sonata, they usually are stuck an its end. Like most performers, Davis and Ponsford are willing to let these two possibly spurious movements into the Sonata, but they move them to its middle, which allows the work to end with the more effective Alla breve, more frequently played as the fifth movement. To my Bars, this “experiment” (as Ponsford calls it in his fine booklet note) works well.
The recording, made in 2000 in a church in Gloucestershire, suits the music perfectly.
American Guide, November/ December 2006
If, like me, you already have the Kuijkens CD of the complete Handel flute sonatas and Andrew Manze and Richard Eggar in the complete violin sonatas, it is time to make a bit of space an the shelf next to them. Alan Davis and David Ponsford play all six of the sonatas for (alto) recorder and continuo, and Ponsford adds a suite for solo harpsichord at the end to fill out the program. The pitch is A=415.
Every now and then-often around Christmas, strangely-I think I am starting to become immune to Handel, and then he gets me again. He got me with the first notes of the C-major Sonata, the opening work here, and once again I sit thinking about how little I really know about beauty. Nor is this music that just plays itself: Handel has a way of making you want to take liberties, as indeed you should, but too many and you lose what makes him Handel. Davis and Ponsford Balance expression and cleanness as well as anyone I have heard, and it is hard to imagine a better performance of these sonatas any time soon. And their liner notes (Davis an the place of the recorder in Handel’s England, Ponsford an the sonatas themselves and their relatives) would be good examples for any performers to imitate: learned but lightly written, telling us more than we knew without wasting our time an biography or analysis. Well done.
MusicWeb Monday July 24 2006
The publisher John Walsh issued Handel’s Op. 1, a set of sonatas for various instruments, in the 1730s. This was an attempt to cash in on Handel’s popularity by giving the public some Handel that they could play at home; mind you some of the sonatas in the set might not even be by Handel. Walsh had previously produced pirate editions of Handel’s music and Handel had nothing to do with the production of Op. 1. But subsequently he seems to have decided to join forces with the publisher and Walsh’s subsequent productions of Handel’s works benefited from the composer’s involvement.
The recorder sonatas were probably composed between 1724 and 1726 and our sources range from incomplete first copies and first drafts, copies by unidentified copyists as well as Walsh’s printed editions based on manuscripts of uncertain provenance. The G minor, F major, A minor and C major sonatas exist in Handel’s own fair copies. Walsh printed five of the sonatas, but transposed the D minor to B minor (for transverse flute). The B flat major sonata only exists in manuscript.
The sonatas all re-use material from elsewhere in Handel’s oeuvre, as was common in the period. He seems to have used the sonatas as something of a proving ground and a number of movements crop up in other forms in later, larger-scale works.
This new disc from Alan Davis and David Ponsford gives us all six of Handel’s sonatas plus the Harpsichord Suite No. 7 as a delightful filler. Davis plays a modern copy of a recorder by the English maker Stanesby from the 1720s. English makers, like the French, made examples that emphasised the instrument’s expressive lower notes. Whereas German makers went for a strong high register, something that Bach and Telemann were able to take advantage of.
The sonatas have been well represented on disc. Philip Pickett and L’Ecole d’Orphée recorded them as part of a set devoted to the complete Handel chamber music (see review). Since then Marion Verbruggen (accompanied by Ton Koopman), Dan Laurin (accompanied by Hidemi and Masaaki Suzuki). Pamela Thorby (accompanied by Richard Egarr) and Dorothee Oberlinger have all recorded the sonatas. Attitudes vary, so that Philip Pickett adds a violoncello to the harpsichord continuo, Dorothee Oberlinger adds a whole range of instruments, matching the line-up to Handel’s trio sonatas. Davis and Ponsford follow Verbruggen and Koopman, Thorby and Egarr, and give us the sonatas in their purest form, just recorder and harpsichord. This was probably Handel’s intention as on his fair copies he titles the works Sonata a Flauto e Cembalo rather than using basso continuo; thus implying a single harpsichord rather than the usual instrumental grouping. There is much to be said for this, but I must confess that I rather enjoy the variety that Philip Pickett’s harpsichord and cello accompaniment brings to the pieces.
Davis and Ponsford offer fine musicality but after listening to all the sonatas I began to find Davis’s tone a little on the melancholic, droopy side. I enjoyed returning to Pickett’s performances, with his brighter tone and greater joie de vivre.
Ponsford rounds off the disc with an enjoyable performance of Handel’s Suite no. 7. This is one of the grandest of his keyboard suites, one which is concluded by a lovely French Passacaille.
This is a very enjoyable disc, but personally I will always return to Philip Pickett for this repertoire. Quite whom you choose might depend on couplings. Pickett’s performances are embedded in a six-disc set, which is issued at super-budget price by Brilliant, whereas this is a single disc with the harpsichord suite as filler. Other performers add other Handel harpsichord suites or trio sonatas. It all depends on your personal preferences.
International Record Review, June 2006
Handel’s recorder sonatas exhibit the same flair for thematic development and melodic attractiveness which one finds in his vocal music; and it’s just that cantabile quality Alan Davis and David Ponsford bring to these beautiful new recordings. Of course, many realizations are possible; whether they get at the truth or not is another question.
As Davis points out in his share of the booklet notes (amounting to a mini-history of the Baroque recorder in England), both French and English Instruments at this time favoured the lower register, thus Handel’s likewise favouring a lower tessitura. Davis accordingly plays a copy of a 1720 Stanesby throughout. Marion Verbruggen (in her 1995 recording with Ton Koopman and Jaap ter Linden) plays a Stanesby copy too, but she also uses a copy of a 1730 Jacob Denner, whose instruments favoured the high register. I cannot hear the benefits of using the Denner.
Verbruggen et al play the extended D minor Sonata in the key of B minor as transposed by John Walsh for the transverse flute, using a recorder pitched a minor third lower. Davis and Ponsford maintain the original key but rearrange the Order of the movements. In his notes, Ponsford points to the uncertainty of the final two movements being intended for this sonata; nevertheless, he and Davis choose to retain them, changing the order to allow the suite to finish an the very fine alla breve – a wonderful idea.
Performance-wise, Verbruggen’s tone is more centred, her phrasing more varied, her ornamentation more profuse; she is also drier and more analytical. These latter qualities are offset by the varied colours of cello, harpsichord and organ used in the recording, but not enough to think something essential is missing. By contrast, Davis’s tone is more fragile, more an the breath; but he has the vocalist’s model always before him, yet he doesn’t burden the line with excessive artifice.
This, and the relative sparseness of using harpsichord accompaniment alone (and here Ponsford is as eloquent a partner as he is a soloist in the Harpsichord Suite No. 7 which ends the disc), result in deeply moving performances (perfectly captured by Paul Arden-Taylor) that get to the heart of the matter with little fuss. They are honest in the same way Chardin’s gorgeous, subdued paintings (one of which adorns the cover of the booklet) are.