Händel: Suites for Keyboard – Jarrett (ECM New Series 1530)

Georg Friedrich Händel
Suites for Keyboard

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded September 1993, State University of New York, Purchase
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Georg Friedrich Händel, ever the poster child of the high Baroque, is of course widely known for his large-scale oratorios and chamber music. One sad consequence of such a reputation is the negligence of lesser-known, though no less winsome, works in the composer’s catalogue. As pianist Keith Jarrett notes, “When audiences decide what they think someone is great at, they tend to undervalue other things that same someone does.” Händel actually composed twenty suites for keyboard, though only a handful—known as the “Great Eight”—tend to be grouped together with any regularity. Jarrett chooses four of these, in addition to three outliers, for a single disc filled to the brim with life-affirming music. His unique euphonic sensibilities represent a vivid attempt to rescue these significant works from our ignorance.

This is Jarrett’s finest Baroque recording on ECM. As much as I adore his stately and humbling Bach, one finds a markedly different approach in the Händel. There is a sort of exuberant intimacy that scintillates with Jarret’s every articulation, a solemn poetry that undercuts much of the flowery prose for which Händel is more often appreciated. The opening Allemande of the Suite in G Minor is characteristic of the whole, seeming to leapfrog Bachian counterpoint while maintaining its own melodic robustness. Indeed, the buoyancy of Jarrett’s Allemandes throughout distinguishes him from hunt-and-peck performers who seem content with relatively forced segregations of bonded lines. Each Suite tells its own story, complete with problem, climax, and resolution. The G Minor continues its meditations on the transience of the creative process, made all the clearer by the brief Gigue that closes it. The Suite in D Minor coats this resignation with translucent regret, working through the latter by retreating into one’s fondest memories, only to flee in a cowardly flash. Fortunately, Suite No. 7 in B-flat sings a more joyous song and lifts the spirit with its gorgeous trills and frolicking syncopations. Nestled in the album’s center is the Suite No. 8 in F Minor, where we find ourselves in a more funereal mode, regressing further and further into the childhood of the one we mourn. We recall that prime of life, when innocence and circumstance walked hand-in-hand to a music that was both familiar and beyond present understanding. There is only beauty to be had in Suite No. 2 in F. The recitative-like introduction of its Adagio gives us a glimpse of the vocal Händel in utero before launching into the album’s most compelling Fuga. Suite No. 4 in E Minor opens in a flower of ivory and jubilation, marking a confident path into the finishing Suite No. 1 in A, of which another resplendent Allemande and sprightly Gigue highlight the tropes so firmly embedded in the Suites’ overarching brilliance.

In the presence of Händel, Jarrett is in top form. He pours his telescoped dynamics, fluidity of playing, and impeccable sense of rhythm (shown to greatest effect in the mid-tempo movements) into an attentively ordered program of quiet splendor. One need bring expectations of neither composer nor performer, but simply bask in the music’s ability to work its way into the bloodstream of a stressful day.

<< Krakatau: Matinale (ECM 1529)
>> Jarrett/Peacock/Motian: At The Deer Head Inn (ECM 1531)

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