Handel - Eight Great Suites

John Cluer published Handel’s 'Suites de pieces pour le clavecin' in November 1720. Hyperion’s set by harpsichordist Paul Nicholson (6/95) is one of the finest recordings of Handel’s ‘Eight Great Suites’ ever made, so it seems fair enough that now the label allows pianist Danny Driver a crack of the whip using a Steinway.

The scalic flourishes of the First Suite’s Prelude instantly reveal Driver’s nimble fingerwork, meticulous control over dynamic accentuation on key harmonic features and judicious use of the sustain pedal. The rippling D minor arpeggios of the Prelude to Suite No 3 transfer to the piano thrillingly; I’m not entirely sold on some dynamic exaggerations and smudginess in the same suite’s enormous penultimate set of variations but the theatrical Presto finale is enunciated crisply. Driver’s softly shaded Prelude to Suite No 6 in F sharp minor is a clear instance where the French overture style would function entirely differently on a harpsichord, and some listeners might miss the explosive dramatic tension of a double-manual harpsichord’s sonorous plucked strings in the Ouverture and Chaconne that open and close Suite No 7 in G minor; if one was to try for that impact on a piano it would probably bury the music, so Driver’s pragmatic solution of textural transparency is an effective alternative treatment of the material. However, the Italianate Adagio that opens Suite No 2 in F major seems naturally suited to a legato Steinway approach.

Most of Handel’s French-style intricate dance movements are played with dignified tenderness: the consecutive allemandes and courantes always have a delicate balance between cantabile warmth in the elegant upper melody, softly precise inner details and a lightly flowing bass-line. The quick Fugue that launches Suite No 4 in E minor has a sparkling clarity that any eminent Baroque specialist keyboardist would be pleased with. If you want to hear these pieces played on a sleek grand piano using an engagingly post-historical approach, with flawlessly stylish ornamentation (eg the embellished vocalising line in the Sarabande from No 7) and a variety of dynamic nuances (the Chaconne in G major), then look no further.

David Vickers, Gramophone
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