Georg Friedrich Händel: Die Acht Grossen Suiten – Smirnova (ECM New Series 2213/14)

Die Acht Grossen Suiten

Georg Friedrich Händel
Die Acht Grossen Suiten

Lisa Smirnova piano
Recorded May 2007, May-June 2008, and Feburary 2009 at Schloss Goldegg, Austria
Engineer: Jens Jamin
An ECM Production

This is not the first time that music from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin (a.k.a. the “Eight Great Suites”) of 1720 has appeared on ECM. Pianist Keith Jarrett recorded for the label’s New Series imprint a selection of suites by Bach’s near contemporary in 1993, and with it endorsed an affirmative reassessment of these exceptional works. Several complete recordings have since been issued, and many more predate it on vinyl, so the press release’s claim that these pieces are “too rarely brought together on disc” is, in fact, moot. Paul Nicholson’s cycle for Hyperion, recorded on harpsichord a year after Jarrett and distinguished by its highly embellished repeats, was a notable companion. Two further accounts have been issued this year (2014) alone. The first, by Richard Egarr for Harmonia Mundi, also opts for harpsichord, while the second, by Danny Driver for Hyperion, joins this 2012 release from Vienna-based Russian pianist Lisa Smirnova as a formidable contender for piano renditions. Smirnova would seem to marry the best of those recent followers, combining Egarr’s charm and Driver’s vibrancy with idiosyncratic success.

Smirnova

Although Händel humbly called these pieces “lessons,” their exact purpose is unclear. Their difficulty is, however, anything but and comprises an earthly counterpart to J. S. Bach’s heavenward considerations at the keyboard. For Smirnova, it is timeless music all the same, as attested by the five years of preparation and careful study she poured into it before a single studio microphone was switched on. Just as intriguing and well considered as her performance of the suites is the order in which she plays them, beginning as she does with the Suite No. 2 F Major HWV 427. A subtle yet bold choice of introduction, it lowers us into Händel’s pond so that we might see the ripples for what they are: as beautiful disturbances brought to life by a human touch. In the latter vein, the suite highlights Smirnova’s technical prowess: her syllogistic approach to the binary Adagios, balance of fluttering trills and steady pacing in the Allegros, and exquisite pedaling throughout.

The suites are full of idiomatic variety and avoid formal suite structure altogether. Consequently, Smirnova’s immediate jump to the Suite No. 8 F Minor HWV 433 makes as much sense as the composer’s elision of a Sarabande in the same (this peculiarity also marks the set’s most Baroque Suite No. 1 A Major HWV 426, which Smirnova places second to last). Thus foregrounded, this final suite elegantly flaunts its darker, more mature wardrobe. The extraordinarily lovely Allemande exemplifies both Händel’s sensitivity as a composer and Smirnova’s as a performer, legato phrasings and all. The concluding Gigue, too, shows us her grace and her ability to be fortuitous without tripping over prosody.

The Suite No. 4 E Minor HWV 429 and Suite No. 5 E Major HWV 430 are the only consecutive pairing. The echoing beginnings and sportive finish of the one sit comfortably alongside the dreamy core of the other. Next, the Suite No. 3 D Minor HWV 428 proceeds with gusto. The fantastic keyboard coverage of its Prelude recalls the grandeur of Bach’s organ works and opens a multivalent interface toward the gargantuan Courante. Simple in design yet expansive in effect, its octave voicings in the left hand and spurring trills in the right keep the final Presto in its sights, inspiring some of the set’s most virtuosic control of dynamics. By contrast, the Suite No. 6 F Sharp Minor HWV 431 portions itself more conservatively, keeping its inner fire audible but in constant check.

Händel mixes things up yet again in the Suite No. 7 G Minor HWV 432, for which he adapts the Overture of his cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno HWV 96. Here Smirnova puts on the air of a harpsichordist, her style brisé lending bite to every tantalizing swerve. This fullest of the suites is a veritable summation of the whole. From the salon-like Andante to the affirmative Passacaglia, it draws on many autobiographical roots until a new tree is born. Smirnova may be just one of many leaves on its ever-growing branches, but among them holds the sun in frame, her heart glowing green against cloudless sky.

(To hear samples of Die Acht Grossen Suiten, click here.)

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