Putting on the Handel

img_6613

Handel: The Water Music

Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult

Westminster

You wouldn’t associate Handel with a bunch of promenaders in late 19th century garb, nor with a riverboat straight out of Huckleberry Finn replete with a flailing conductor.

But Westminster does.

Handel’s Water Music, in fact, was completed in 1717 at the behest of James I, in preparation for a little cruise he was planning, and it actually premiered on the king’s barge as it sailed along the Thames River. Which sounds like the most aristocratic/British thing ever. The set of suites is taken mainly from national ditties with spritely tunes, comprised of a waltz, a bourree, a gigue and other dances to keep the monarch and his cohort hopping.

The Sheffield Sound

IMG_6461

Variations on another’s themes are like great chats between composers who’ve usually never met. The form has provided some of the most spectacular works. There’s the canonical Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabellis, Rachmaninov’s rousing Paganini Variations, to name three of the more popular.

Lincoln Mayorga here plays another mainstay of the genre, Johannes Brahms’s oft-recorded Variations on a Theme of Handel, along with the original, and a Chopin Mazurka. About as notable as the piece itself is the Sheffield Lab label, which Moyorga co-founded. An audiophile’s wet dream, Sheffield mixes the gorgeous timbre of early 78s without the scratchiness with cutting-edge digital equipment. Since it began (this is their fourth album), it’s become the standard for vinyl sound-quality. The effect, at least here, is a little like curling up in the belly of the piano as the pianist plays.

IMG_6458

The Master Plucker

IMG_6111

“The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.”

-Andres Segovia

The Andalusian guitarist Andres Segovia was the Django Reinhardt of classical music, transforming the looked-down on instrument into a mini orchestra. His repertoire was not huge, but his depth of intellectual feeling certainly was. He was, shockingly, self-taught. Segovia is known for playing his own transcriptions, especially Bach (Segovia’s sublime reworking of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 will destroy you in a good way), Scarlatti and other baroque masters. He’s something of the godfather of classical guitar, numbering among those he directly or indirectly influenced John Williams (not that John Williams), Christopher Parkening and Julian Bream.

In this Decca Gold Label recording, the six-string maestro plays works by Sors, Handel, Villa-Lobos and others. Erik Nitsche designed the color-wheel design comprised of regal, operatic silhouettes.

Quualudes and Fugues

Glenn Gould was an oddball’s oddball. He’d show up at the studio layered in heavy winter garb, even in summer, carrying his piano stool — a plain chair — with him. Before every performance he could be seen dipping his arms up to the elbows in a bucket of hot water. Gesturing wildly, he seemed to be conducting his own playing, singing, muttering and groaning along to the music.

IMG_4588

For all his eccentricities, no one doubts that Gould was incomparable. His Bach is iconic, his Mozart utterly bizarre. Beethoven, in Gould’s recordings, often sounds like someone had erased pedal markings and tempo indications. Everything Gould touched, from the obscure Orlando Gibbons to Arnold Schoenberg, was stamped with his own refreshing precocity. And he played with the abandon and delight of someone in their own solar system.

But his recording of Georg Frideric Handel’s Suites 1-4, which originally appeared in 1720, reach a whole new level of strangeness that borders on perversity.

The four Baroque pieces, under Gould’s fingers, become something like high camp, right down to portraying the pianist in a gaudy silver frame on the sleeve, above an equally gaudy embellished gold pedestal. This would be Gould’s first recording on the harpsichord, and the instrument sounds alternately like a 68-string zither, a prepared guitar, and here and there like a piece of carpentry not meant to produce music at all.

IMG_4589

Handel’s period was rife with extemporization, taking liberties with themes in the way of jazz, and Gould doesn’t skimp on the riffing. It’s probably the strangest Handel we’re likely to hear: one moment the pianist cascades through like he’s recording the roll for a player-piano, the next he’s teasing the keys harp-like. With this recording, Gould’s idiosyncrasies are as pronounced as they’d ever be.

From the Suite 1 Prelude Gould deconstructs Handel’s keyboard works rather than just performing them, adding trills and little runs around the simple theme in Bachian fashion. The Gigue that closes out the Suite is a manic dance that comes off like a synthesized take.

IMG_4591

Likewise, the Adagio that opens the Suite 2 is played painfully slow, as Gould fragments the harmony into tiny pieces of modality. Following that, his Allegro flat-out bolts to another Adagio before going heafirst into the Fuga. Gould was most assured with Bach and counterpoint, so it’s not surprising that the playing here sounds most natural.

But it’s the Air, Variations and Presto of the 3rd Suite that, in a nutshell, characterizes the whole performance, running practically an entire half of the B-side. Here, Gould lets his freak flag fly, going from languorous and halting (and resembling nothing so much as a Renaissance-era song) to a full on high-speed lunge in the Presto. Vintage Gould — circumspect, obsessive, constantly unexpected.

Which is to say the album is cracked-out Baroque. Filled with equal parts lassitude and frenzy, Gould’s Handel is ultimately a bit of high-flying kitsch. Also, it’s completely addictive and impossible not to spin over and over again. Gould and Handel, two very different people, seem to be sharing an inside joke the rest of us aren’t in on, but which we can play along with as though we are anyway.

Maybe the weirdest thing I can say about this record is that it sounds exactly like Glenn Gould playing Handel on a harpsichord.

Boulez & Handel

IMG_3957

Pierre Boulez, the great exponent of modern music, especially his own, gives an uncharacteristic Baroque performance of Royal Fireworks Music, on Columbia Masterworks. Rounding out the recording is the Concerto Grosso in F from the Op. 6 series, and the overture to his opera “Berenice”, which flopped on arrival in 1737 at Covent Garden Theatre. Two-time Grammy nominee Henrietta Condak did the amazing design for this 1980 reissue. The titular festive explosions pour forth flowers and phoenixes, while a zodiacal sun is being spewed out at the center. It’s awesome in every sense.

Retro Baroque

IMG_3955

An all Baroque compilation of works by Bach, Handel, Corelli, Vivaldi and more. Quite a busy cover design from Doug Samson: a pinup, a cherub, a baboon’s face, a high-heeled foot coming out of the side of a staircase, in the retro-est pastels. Part of a series that includes “Mahler’s Head” and other classical Heads. To clarify the title and the record label’s name, the back cover reminds us that “The Orphic Egg has cracked many times/Once when it cracked out sprang–The Baroque Head.” Whatever that means.