HANDEL: Organ Concertos, Op. 4, Nos. 1-6 (Bradley Creswick/ Chris Craker/ Northern Sinfonia/ Simon Lindley) (Naxos: 8.553835)
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George Frideric Handel became the most famous English composer of the 18th century, though he was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685. He ame into a reasonably wealthy family, his farther already 63. Details of his early life comes to us second-hand, but it is clear that his father opposed his career as a musician. But George secretly learnt the clavichord and was heard by the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels who persuaded his father of the boy's unique talents. He quickly learned the organ, violin, harpsichord, harmony and counterpoint. At the same time, to please his father, he continued to study law.
He went to live in Hamburg and was soon earning a living as a musician and teacher. By now his list of works was considerable, and it is claimed that as a teenager he composed a new motet for the church every week. Soon - he was still only 18 - he was composing operas and oratorios. In 1706 he spent time in Italy, visiting Rome, Naples and Florence. He was back in Germany in 1709, by which time he had also become a conductor of importance, and visited England in 1710. He was adored, his opera, Rinaldo, an immediate success, and after briefly returning to Germany, he eventually came to settle in London in 1712 and became naturalized English. By a stroke of ill-luck his German patron, whom he had rejected, became George I of England, and the link with the Royal household was, for a time, very poor. His famous score, the Water Music, written for a journey by the Royal Family on the River Thames in London, restored favour. He was then appointed Director of the new Royal Academy of Music in London. By 1731 he had composed 12 operas and had become a most famous composer of stage works. But feuds and arguments led him in the late 1730's to desert the theatre to concentrate on sacred works. There followed a whole catalogue of famous oratorios including, Saul, Israel in Egypt and the Messiah.
In 1750 he went blind, but continued to work as an organist and lived for a further seven years. He was given the unusual honour of burial in Westminster Abbey, and died childless having never married. He left a catalogue of works of a magnitude and scope unparalleled to that point in history, and so far as English music was concerned, became the last great composer for a period of over one hundred years.
Though the low opus number would indicate an early work, this group of six organ concertos came from quite late in Handel's life, between 1735 and 1736. Though there are examples of works for orchestra with an organ involvement that predate these works, they represent the first formal organ concertos. They were invented by Handel to show his virtuosity and to fill in the intervals between the parts of his oratorios, and to draw attention to the composer. He wanted to make sure that they had maximum exposure and would be played by as many as possible, so called them concertos for organ or harpsichord. For his own performances it is known that he used a very small chamber organ with few stops.
Throughout his life he could not resist 'borrowing' from other composers, or reselling his own material in a different guise. The fifth concerto in the series simply a reworking of an earlier recorder sonata, while the sixth started out life as a harp concerto to be included in Alexander's Feast.
Apart from the sixth concerto, which is in three movements, they are in the conventional four movements, the finale usually being fast and joyful. Slow movements are short, and there is a general feeling that they would have acted as something of a divertimento to the serious nature of the oratorio.
Simon Lindley is the busiest organist in the UK. Each year he gives over thirty recitals on concert-hall organs, in addition to his duties as organist and choir-master in the major provincial English city of Leeds, where he is also the city organist. In addition he is a conductor much in demand in the field of oratorio, and directs one of the finest UK chamber choirs, the St. Peter's Singers. His musical tastes are liberal, and he takes great pleasure of working as a conductor of brass bands.
The Northern Sinfonia is based in Newcastle and is the major chamber orchestra in the North of England. In the year 2001 it will be the proud occupant of a new concert hall being built for them. Their concerts mainly serve the north east of England, and with a core of around 50 musicians it can act as both a chamber or, slightly augmented, a symphony orchestra. They already have a vast catalogue of records, and in a three year period have recorded eighteen discs for Naxos.
The orchestra was directed from the leader's chair by Bradley Creswick. Now established as one of the finest violinists in the UK, Creswick came to prominence as leader of the Northern Sinfonia, before moving to London to take the same post with the Philharmonia. His move back to the Northern Sinfonia marked a desire to spend more time as a soloist and conductor.
Simon Lindley and the Northern Sinfonia spent several months looking for a suitable organ, before finding one on the orchestra's 'doorstep'. The small baroque-style organ in Fenham, proved not only ideal for Handel's music, but at the same time a wonderful new recording venue was discovered. The sessions took place over two days in February 1996.