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Organ Concertos Op 4, Op 7

Paul Nicholson (organ)
Brandenburg Consort / Roy Goodman

Hyperion Dyad CDD22052


Handel's organ concertos are yet another example of his great shrewdness. They were written as interval pieces for his oratorios, accompanied by the orchestra in the pit, to supply that element of display that virtuosic arias had done in opera, but could not in oratorio. Handel knew he could draw in the crowds as a keyboard player and improviser. Where he feared for the box office takings of an oratorio he had written – and after all, he used to hire the theatre - he made sure to have the organ concerto advertised in large type on the posters.


The pure, chamber sound of the organ on this CD set reminds us that English organs were much smaller than their North German counterparts, and indeed had no pedals. Prima facie, it might appear that no more authentic choice could be made than the one on the recording. It is Handel's own organ at St Lawrence's, Stanmore, where he worked for the Duke of Chandos.


But this is simply to remind ourselves that authenticity is a complex idea. Although this instrument remains small and compact, it has been extended to have a second manual, and indeed pedals, that Handel would not have seen. Its sound is only an approximation of what Handel himself would have heard. The restoration by Goetz and Gwynne has removed many later additions, but still the organ that remains fills the church's acoustic in a way that Handel could not have done. And these concertos were certainly not written for church performance. So does recording these works on Handel's organ, simply because we know he played this one, represent an extra authenticity or merely a specious one?


With that caveat, these performances do ring true; Nicholson's neat-fingered playing is sensitively accompanied by the Brandenburg Consort; St Lawrence is blessed with a clear acoustic that allows organ and orchestral textures easily to blend.


Once the listener is used to the chamber-scale sound, there is much to enjoy. The slow movements of both Op 4 No 1 and No 2 show the intimate side of the organ, flute-y and plangent, at its best. Op 4 No 5 is a transcription of the familiar recorder sonata Op 1 No 11, and its jaunty lines transfer well. Op 4 No 4 includes a refreshing cameo, a sung alleluia in its finale.


Is the small-scale, chamber aural picture on the excellent recording truthful? Certainly, it is startling in its intimacy. From close up (this is the only organ of which I have an intimate knowledge), and even in the body of the church, the sound is grander, but the recording accurately reflects the sound the Duke of Chandos, in his elevated ‘royal box-like' pew, would have heard.


There is a faithful reproduction of the very attractive flute stops on the instrument. And it is, after all, notoriously difficult to gain an accurate impression of an organ from a recording, unless one has a gigantic room in which to listen.


Excellent booklet as expected. As with the original issue, the organ carvings by Grinling Gibbons feature on the cover. Curiously, however, though the programme notes are in three languages, the description of the organ is only in English, and that of the church rather sells it short by completely ignoring the sumptuous and artistically significant decorations. St Lawrence's is an architectural gem, plain outside but richly decorated inside at the bidding of the megalomaniac Duke. It deserves much greater fame, although a Friends' organisation is currently active in promoting as a concert venue what had hitherto only been known through recordings like this.


Ying Chang

Disc 2 includes a scintillating performance by Frances Kelly of Handel's harp concerto, together with the Organ Concertos Op 7 Nos 1-6. Q.v. also Frances Kelly at Trinity College of Music's recent Harp Festival. [Editor]

More on the church and its musical activities

The first recital of the current (06-07) season was reviewed here on MP. I assisted with choosing the registration in the most recent recital, by Jill Crossland. [YC]