Saturday, July 13, 2002

[I am in the US for two weeks, so updates may be sparse in that time.]


G. F. Handel, Organ Concertos, Karl Richter/Chamber Orchestra, KRI Cat. No. 4509979002

Re-listening to the CD masters of Karl Richter's complete Opus 4 and Opus 7 Handel Organ Concertos, it is astonishing to consider that these performances were recorded some 40 years ago. I first heard them when I was just eleven years old, in 1969. Indeed the third LP in the original vinyl set was the first record I ever owned. I was completely transfixed. They have held a special place in my heart ever since.

The primary charm, of course, is Handel's music. The combination of organ and small orchestra makes the most of his penchant for colouration. Combine that with superlative melodies, harmonic variation and metrical playfulness and you have a recipe for both enjoyment and engagement.

Karl Richter, who died at the age of only 54 in 1981, is best known for his ground-breaking interpretations of the more studious Bach. But as organist and choirmaster at St Mark's Church in Munich and in his work with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra he extended his passion for the little-regarded Handel concertos, leading to this extraordinary (and definitive) recording.

The Opus 4 concertos issued by Thomas Walsh in 1738 were the only legitimate ones published in Handel's lifetime. They came out to pre-empt another unauthorised version. After the composer's death two further sets appeared, the most widely recognised being Opus 7, published in 1761. It is these two main bodies of material that Richter has lovingly reproduced.

Originally these works, which included original composition and much judicious re-use or re-working of existing material, were performed by Handel as show pieces during interludes in his Oratorios. That means they would have been played on modest theatre organs with a small ensemble. Karl Richter stuck with the Chamber Orchestra but decided to use a larger organ. He reasoned, quite fairly, that the flamboyant Handel would surely have been prepared to exploit the fuller range of a church instrument to bring his work to life. Indeed, it is well noted that the performances the composer gave far outstripped the notated versions.

Another reason for this, instrumentation aside, is Handel's virtuosic propensity for improvisation. His was, if you like, the jazz sensibility of its day. Few classical performers have the courage, capacity or training to replicate that kind of extemporisation. But Karl Richter is a shining exception. Among the many highlights of these breathtaking performances are the player's own ad libtum embellishments in the spirit of the originals, the prominence of the organ, and the multi-stopping, flute, reed and bass pedal effects. The recording acoustic is also just right in its balance between breadth and detail. No doubt the overall sound quality could have been improved using modern engineering, but this is still a high standard.

In summary, we get a rich and full treatment for these fine musical miniatures. Yet Richter also shows great restraint where necessary, and he maintains a necessary balance of interpretative and performative sensitivities. Listen out for the famous 'Hallelujah' and 'Cuckoo and Nightingale' themes in Opus 4, as well as for the less famous textures and ideas of Opus 7.

Karl Richter has, without doubt, bequeathed us the finest existing recording of the Handel Organ Concertos. Or, at the very least, he has set a benchmark for other interpreters and performers to follow. All who love Handel should invest in this edition.

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