From the Sleevenotes: Handel Remembered

Sleevenotes from Prima Facie Records PFCD235 Handel Remembered: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and more…

Handel Remembered (Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and more…)

Kenneth Hamilton piano

1. G. F. Handel/C. V. Alkan: Chorus of the Priests of Dagon: “Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound” (from Samson)
2-3. Franz Liszt: Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s Almira, S181
4. Ludwig van Beethoven: 32 Variations in C minor, WoO80
5. G. F. Handel/Wilhelm Kempff: Minuet, HWV 434/4
6-9. W. A. Mozart: Suite “in the style of Handel”, K.399:
Sarabande (fragment)
10. W. A. Mozart: A Little Gigue, K.574
11. G. F. Handel/Percy Grainger: Hornpipe (from the Water Music)
12-38. Johannes Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op.24
39. C.W. Gluck/Johannes Brahms: Gavotte
40. Percy Grainger: “Handel in the Strand”

Total Time 72:09

“He is the master of us all.” Joseph Haydn (on hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus”) “He was the greatest composer who ever lived.” Ludwig van Beethoven “A barrel of pork and beer.” Hector Berlioz

Georg Friederich Händel was born in Halle (Saxony) in 1685. He died as George Frederic Handel in London (England) in 1759. He had long been one of the most internationally celebrated composers; in England he was admired almost to the point of idolatry – around 3000 mourners attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey. His reputation in his adopted land (he had become a British subject in 1727, although amusement over his thick German accent continued unabated) grew yet further in the following decades. The centenary of his demise was marked by a mammoth performance of his oratorio Messiah in London’s Crystal Palace. The complement of singers (2765) would have dwarfed even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but it was easily eclipsed by an audience of around 10,000. Indeed, the earliest choral recording ever made (in 1888) was an Edison cylinder immortalizing a few minutes from an equally elephantine Crystal Palace performance of Israel in Egypt. It was no doubt these vast Victorian renditions of Handel’s music, coupled with portraits of its corpulent composer, that prompted the caustic comment from Berlioz quoted above.

Nevertheless, just as earlier images of Handel show a much slimmer and presumably nimbler musician, most of his music had originally been written for much smaller and more agile forces (the choir at the first performance of Messiah had a mere 32 singers). The number of performers on stage increased in accordance with the monumental aspirations of subsequent generations. Handel was, arguably, the first “standard repertoire” composer, given how regularly his choral works were programmed, especially in Britain, from the second half of the 18th century onwards. The 19th century famously saw a “Bach revival” in Germany – encouraged by Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin performances of the St Matthew Passion – but no revival was needed for Handel’s oratorios (the operas were another matter) even though they fell squarely into the category of “historical music” at a time when concert repertoire concentrated almost exclusively on contemporary works.

In Vienna, Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803) – diplomat, Prefect of the Imperial Court Library, unsung pioneer of the card catalogue system, and one of the very first “early music” enthusiasts – had in 1782 introduced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) to the scores by Handel and Bach in his collection. Van Swieten was also a prolific composer of music that, according to Haydn, was “as stiff as he himself is”. His enduring legacy was not his own creative output, rather his remarkable role as a link between the greatest Baroque and the greatest Classical composers. He commissioned Mozart to make “modern” performance versions of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Messiah, Ode for St Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast; and he shepherded Haydn’s Handelian oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, into existence.

Of course, Mozart would, as a child, have heard a fair amount of music by Handel during his stay in London from 1764-65, but the 1780s saw his much more active engagement with it, encouraged by his soon-to-be-wife Constanze Weber’s fondness for Baroque fugues. Shortly before his marriage in August 1782, Mozart wrote with some bewilderment that Constanze (a professional singer) “would now listen to nothing but fugues, especially by Handel and Bach”. What’s more, she insisted that Mozart should try his hand at some himself. One consequence was the suite “in the style of Handel” included on this disc, and – later – the little contrapuntal Gigue in G major. The overture to the suite features an elaborate and energetic fugue that was no doubt designed to delight Constanze. Mozart’s enthusiasm was professional as well as personal: he particularly admired not only Handel’s musical fluency, but also his deft handling of massed choral forces. “Handel understands effect better than any of us”, Mozart once remarked. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt!” And his admiration lasted. Even the Requiem, Mozart’s final work, begins with an open allusion to Handel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was if anything even more in awe of Handel – for Beethoven he was simply “the greatest composer who had ever lived”. On his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven had been steered, in a now familiar fashion, towards closer engagement with the Baroque by Baron van Swieten, although he had already mastered J. S. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues – at that time a highly unusual accomplishment – during his early studies in Bonn with Christian Gottlob Neefe. Van Swieten was honoured with the dedication of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony in 1801, followed only a year later by that of Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s groundbreaking biography of Bach – probably the first “musicological” work devoted to a single composer. Posterity was rewarded by Beethoven’s Variations on “See the conquering hero comes” from Judas Maccabeus, the Consecration of the House Overture, and the masterly 32 Variations in C minor (1806) included on this recording – a Baroque Chaconne in all but name.

A proliferation of Bach arrangements for piano, especially of his organ music, was produced in the century after Beethoven’s death. As a result, I had the luxury of choosing from a vast repertoire for my Back to Bach album of 2017. Ferruccio Busoni’s (1866-1924) tremendous corpus of transcriptions, reworkings and revisions are just the tip of a very impressive iceberg. The same was not true for Handel Remembered. Even Busoni had left Handel well alone, although the sonorities of the cyclopean Bach-Busoni D minor Chaconne owe much to Franz Liszt’s (1811-86) stately Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s “Almira”, which Busoni – fervent Liszt fan as he was – certainly knew.

As a unique item in its composer’s oeuvre, the Sarabande and Chaconne finds a more fitting place on this CD than in my ongoing series of Liszt albums. The piece, however, is definitely not a transcription, despite its subtitle “concert arrangement”. It is instead a set of variations on Handel’s themes – much freer, admittedly, than Johannes Brahms’s (1833-97) encyclopedic “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel”, but of the same ilk.

The Mozart and Beethoven pieces, as mentioned above, are entirely original works inspired by the Baroque. I have also included two sprightly Handel arrangements by Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-88) and Percy Grainger (1882-1961), and added in, for good measure, Brahms’ gracious transcription of a Gavotte by Handel’s contemporary Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87). The Alkan acts as a celebratory prelude to the programme; the Grainger as a jaunty preface to the Brahms Variations; the Gluck/Brahms Gavotte as an “encore”. Wilhelm Kempff’s (1895-1991) “Handel Minuet” is also an arrangement, but so thoroughly Romanticised that its immediate relation to the original might be difficult to discern. Lastly, Grainger’s rollicking “Handel in the Strand” functions as a final uproarious encore rounding off the disc.

The glorious choral numbers of Handel’s oratorios, with their acute treatment of vocal tessitura and deft dramatization of acoustic space, do not routinely lend themselves to effective piano arrangement. One exception is Alkan’s bracingly vigorous version of “Awake the Trumpet’s Lofty Sound” from Samson (1743). The kaleidoscopic treatment of the keyboard reproduces the impact of Handel’s “Chorus of Priests of Dagon” in a fashion just about playable by a pianist with only two hands. The transcription was published in Paris in 1861 as the first of six “Souvenirs des Concerts du Conservatoire”. These also included music by Gluck, Haydn, Mozart Beethoven and Weber – a strong indication of Alkan’s keen respect for musical tradition. Similar “antiquarian” interests can be heard in his original music, despite their plethora of programmatic titles and striking super-virtuosity. Aesop’s Feast, for example, a quirky precursor of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, is obviously influenced by both Mozart’s late G minor Symphony and Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor.

In the Paris of the 1830s, Alkan shared the stage – sometimes literally – with Chopin and Liszt, both of whom admired his pianism and his creativity. “A composer who is far too little known”, said Liszt to his student Arthur Friedheim as he sat down to play Aesop’s Feast, “and who has written many good things”. But it was to another late student, Birmingham-born Walter Bache (1842-88), that we owe Liszt’s most imaginative engagement with Handel, the Sarabande and Chaconne from “Almira”. Bache had tirelessly promoted his master’s music in England; Liszt was keen to show his gratitude by writing something special for him to play. He knew that the English were mad about Handel’s music, but sadly less mad about his own. The clear compromise, therefore, was to identify a piece by Handel would lend itself to a modern Lisztian makeover.

For his British concert tours of 1840-1, Liszt had composed a sprawling Fantasy on English Themes, which included extracts from the overture to Handel’s Messiah, along with “See the Conquering Hero Comes, Arne’s “Rule Britannia!”, and “God save the Queen”. This remained unpublished, although part of the manuscript still survives. The sole original work by Handel in Liszt’s regular recital repertoire was a Fugue in e minor that he edited for an English publisher, adding a few octaves at the end for extra impact. Later, in the 1850s, he conducted performances of Messiah and Judas Maccabeus in Germany.

But Liszt had paid little attention to Handel’s operas. They had almost completely disappeared from the 19th-century stage until Almira was dusted off for the bicentenary of the Hamburg Opera in 1878. Written by Handel at the prodigious age of 19 for a Hamburg premiere in 1705, the opera’s belated revival was a welcome but unexpected success. 1879 saw further performances in Leipzig, and the publication of a new edition of the score. Almira was now modestly in the news, which galvanised Liszt into action. He selected two minor- key dances as themes for variation. This was standard Baroque procedure: the Chaconne had always been treated as a variation form (for example in Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in g minor) and the Sarabande frequently so (for example in the Suite in d minor).

After a short, stern introduction, the solemn Sarabande (Liszt warned his students against playing this “too slowly”, advice that I’ve tried to bear in mind) is succeeded by two variations of increasing intensity. They mostly respect Handel’s sober Baroque harmonies. But in the third variation Liszt casts restraint aside, like a recovering alcoholic suddenly falling off the wagon. The theme is wittily twisted (Track 2, 5’31”) into an allusion to the opening of Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31 no. 3 (Liszt used to tell his pupils to play this as if it were a setting of the words “liebst du mich?”– “do you love me?”). This quickly carries the music into an unexpectedly anguished climax on Wagner’s so- called “Tristan” chord (6’30”), which also plays a distinguished role in the Beethoven – Wagner had no copyright on it.

Perhaps we’re eavesdropping on Liszt’s “improvising” here – a stream- of-consciousness wandering from Almira, via Beethoven’s “do you love me?”, to Wagner’s Tristan: from the music of the past to the “music of the future”? It’s possibly no coincidence that the plot of Almira unfolds around a series of love-triangles. At any rate, now that anything goes, Liszt proceeds to drink the harmonic bar dry in a wistful free fantasy on fragments of the Sarabande. It ends on a hushed diminished 7th chord, before a prancing Chaconne trips in, “on the light fantastic toe”. This dance too is piquantly varied until an avalanche of octaves announces the triumphal return of the Sarabande in the major mode, a stirring apotheosis successfully directed, as Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal once put it, “at the brain centres controlling the motor nerves of applause”.

Liszt’s Chaconne is followed by Beethoven’s Chaconne, the 32 Variations in c minor from 1806. An incisive, oft-played piece, the Variations channel memories of similar essays by both Handel and Bach. Although the curt, peremptory tune heard at the opening ostensibly constitutes the “theme” of the variations, their real subject is the descending chromatic bass line with which the melody is harmonised. This is a standard Baroque “lamentation” ground- bass, most memorably employed in “When I am laid in earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

The treble tune sporadically returns as a “signpost” to significant sections of the piece, namely at the move to the major mode (the five variations beginning at 3’05” of Track 4), and as a preface to the extended coda (8’38” onwards), which starts with a lowering storm of fast figuration. We hear a related effect towards the end of Brahms’ “Handel Variations”. Brahms also adopted another Beethovenian strategy, the forging of “family units” of variations with shared figuration (at, for example 0’15”-0’50” of Track 4). This avoids excessive fragmentation, alternating isolated, epigrammatic variations with more extended sequences.

The 32 Variations in c minor quickly became one of Beethoven’s most popular piano works. On top of their artistic success, they are an indispensable compendium of the entirety of Beethoven’s keyboard technique – what Czerny’s studies might have been, had Czerny actually been a great composer. Beethoven himself had a peculiar tendency to react against exactly those pieces that the public loved best. “Why are they always going on about this [“Moonlight”] Sonata?”, he once complained. “Surely I have written better things?” He was similarly dismissive of the C minor Variations. On hearing a friend practising them, he asked: “Whose piece is that?” Receiving the answer “yours”, he lamented, “Oh Beethoven, what idiot you were in those days!” But this was likely delivered in a spirit of self-dramatisation rather than self-flagellation. It recalls Handel’s stroll with a companion through Vauxhall Gardens – an outdoors orchestra playing in the distance – during which the following exchange occurred: Handel: “What do you think of the music?” The friend: “Tis pretty poor stuff!” Handel: “You are right, Sir – it is pretty poor stuff. I thought so myself when I wrote it!”

Just as popular today, especially as an encore, is the haunting Handel Minuet in G minor arranged by pianist-composer Wilhelm Kempff in 1954. The hypnotic effect of the piece is almost entirely owing to Kempff rather than Handel. Even the initial transfer from harpsichord to piano inevitably changes the sound-world, although this was a common enough practice in the 1950s, when Sir Thomas Beecham’s notorious description of the older instrument as sounding like “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof” reasonably represented received opinion. The original version of the Minuet is simple and straightforward – to be played at a gently moving tempo. It was first published, no doubt without permission, as the last number of the Suite in Bb major from which Brahms took the theme for his Handel Variations, but it is neither the sort of dance that would usually have ended such a suite (we would expect a gigue) nor is it even in the right key. Kempff’s transcription upholsters the harmony with lush chords that seem to demand a languorous performance. When given it, they produce a transfixing effect of suspended time akin to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies. “It’s Handel, Jim, but not as we know it…”

Equally unauthorised was the publication of Mozart’s unfinished Suite in the Style of Handel. The title was the publisher’s, although it is apt enough, as the piece is a clearly a product of the Mozarts’ Baroque-mania of 1882. Mozart completed a grand Handelian “French” Overture, which opens with an imposing slow introduction in jagged rhythms (designed to catch the attention of the listeners, and to shut them up – audiences talked almost incessantly in those days) followed by a fast-flowing fugue. He then penned a meditative Allemande, a moderate tempo Courante, and a few bars of a slow Sarabande (very similar indeed to the one from Almira) before casting the manuscript aside, perhaps in favour of a game of his beloved billiards, never to return.

Several years later, however, Mozart did compose a short, cheekily chromatic Gigue for an acquaintance in Leipzig. Its fugal style was a tribute to J. S. Bach, who had for decades been Director of Church Music in the city. The Gigue would form an almost ideal conclusion to the Suite, were it not, alas, also in the wrong key (G Major rather than C). Nevertheless, the Sarabande fragment does form an amusing prelude to the Gigue – as if Mozart had suddenly found the slow dance too tedious, and started something more upbeat instead. I accordingly play the few bars of Sarabande as an introduction to the Gigue, which then “completes” the sequence of dances. Listeners can regard this as an eccentrically anachronistic exercise in “progressive tonality”, or simply as a sign of the insensitivity of the performer.

Any eccentricity here pales into insignificance compared to that of Percy Grainger, unquestionably one of the most individual musicians ever to grace, or occasionally to run around, the concert stage: an unquestionably original composer, indefatigable reviver of folksongs, and refreshingly unaffected pianist. Two of his slender but striking pieces work well as bookends to the weighty Brahms Handel Variations, one as a vivacious prelude (any 19th-century set of variations beginning directly with the theme would have been provided with a prelude by the performer) the other as an exuberant, although unrequested, “encore” to the album as a whole.

The transcription of the jaunty Hornpipe – a sailors’ dance – from Handel’s Water Music (written in 1717 for an orchestra accompanying a River Thames “cruise” by King George I) was “dished up”, as Grainger put it, for piano solo in 1922. It is a punctiliously faithful arrangement, albeit couched in Grainger’s swashbucklingly percussive keyboard style. “Handel in the Strand”, on the other hand, is an original “clog dance” from 1911, derived from a set of abandoned variations on Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” – the ubiquitous Air from the Harpsichord Suite in E Major. (Almost needless to say, the picturesque title was not Handel’s own.) Grainger himself characterised the piece as follows: “The music seemed to reflect both Handel and English musical comedy […] as if jovial old Handel were careening down the Strand [London’s Broadway] to the strains of modern English popular music.” Listeners familiar with Handel’s ubiquitous “Blacksmith” will recognize a jolly version of the tune, sounding rather like a merry typewriter, right at the start of the dance, and may also register the raucous quote from “Rule Britannia” right at the end. “Handel in the Strand” is one of the most life-enhancing pieces of music I know – it’s impossible to play or listen to it without a smile.

But I suspect that Brahms may have hated it, at least when played as a postlude to his highly inventive but mostly far from comic “Handel” Variations. I’ve therefore eased the transition by adding Brahms’ own transcription (1871) of a Gavotte from Gluck’s opera Iphigenia in Aulis, which shares with the Variations a dedication to Clara Schumann. Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (1861) was the only piece by Brahms actively admired by Richard Wagner, himself the author of an updated version of Iphigenia. “They show”, said Wagner, “what can still be done with the old forms by someone who knows how to handle them”. The clarion-like theme is from Handel’s B♭ Major Harpsichord suite, though as we have already heard with the Beethoven, the variations themselves are mostly based on its harmonic structure rather than its melody. I’ve taken the liberty of varying the ornamentation of the theme a little in its repeats, as would always have been done in Handel’s day, and in Brahms’s too. In the same fashion, I’ve tried, where appropriate, to play the repeats of the variations slightly differently. Brahms complex, contrapuntal piano writing lends itself well to the subtle shifting of emphases among its inner voices.

Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel is not just a great work, it is also a piece of musical propaganda, an artistic addendum to a published polemic of 1860, signed by Brahms and several others, that castigated the output of the “New German School” (mainly Liszt, Wagner, and – bizarrely – Berlioz) as “contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned”. The argument was partly over the relative value of “programmatic” and “absolute” music (i.e., whether music should be an independent or a descriptive art form) but also over musical style. Brahms was firmly in the conservative camp, Liszt and Wagner in the avant-garde. Ironically, however, both factions believed that they were following in the footsteps of Beethoven – they simply had very different ideas on exactly where these footsteps had been heading.

So, the very choice of a theme by Handel (one of the “old” German masters) as a subject for variations made a political point. The piece itself intermittently recalls aspects of Beethoven’s Eroica, Diabelli and C minor Variations, and the Serious Variations by Mendelssohn. Brahms ranges widely through dexterous copies of standard Baroque styles (the pastoral siciliano of Variation 19, for example, or the 18th-century “trio sonata” of no. 5, followed by the strict canon of no. 6), to a host of delightfully characteristic Romantic miniatures, such as the “hunting scene” of variations 7 and 8, or the two colourfully “Hungarian” variations (nos. 13 and 14) at the centre of the work: a lassan/friska (slow/fast) coupling that constitutes a mini Hungarian rhapsody. Most charming of all is the “musette” (bagpipe) variation 22, where the drone of the pipes is present throughout. (I play this with a gradual diminuendo at the end, as if the piper is slowly departing into the distance.)

The final variation (no. 25), preceded by a tempestuous crescendo, unmistakeably alludes to the festive opening of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (the leaping left-hand alone gives the game away). It is a declaration of Brahms’s compositional credo. And just like the Hammerklavier, the piece ends with a rigorous and undeniably virtuosic fugue. The effect could have been hectoring and pedantic. As the old joke runs, “a fugue is a piece in which the voices enter one by one as the audience leaves one by one”. The fact that it is instead so thrilling is evidence that Brahms’s zealotry was greatly exceeded by his genius.
Notes by Kenneth Hamilton

Kenneth Hamilton

Described by the Moscow Kommersant as “an outstanding virtuoso – one of the finest players of his generation”, by Tom Service in The Guardian as “pianist, author, lecturer and all-round virtuoso”, and by Klassik Heute as a “pianist, scholar, radical thinker and philosopher”, Kenneth Hamilton is well-known worldwide as a recitalist and recording artist of emotional depth and striking originality. His latest releases have enjoyed especially exceptional critical acclaim: Volume 1 of Kenneth Hamilton Plays Liszt: Death and Transfiguration was selected as a Gramophone “Best Classical Album of 2022”; Volume 2, Salon and Stage was the Guardian’s “Best Classical Recording of 2023”. Hamilton’s After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press) is one of the most internationally influential books on Classical piano performance, and has been translated into Italian, Hungarian and, most recently, Mandarin.

Hamilton is a familiar artist on the BBC in the UK, and a keen communicator, enthusiastically promoting the understanding and appreciation of music. He contributes a regular column, “Musings of a Musician”, for International Piano Magazine. One of his BBC broadcasts, in the series The Essay: My Life in Music, was described by Sir Nicholas Kenyon in The Observer as “revelatory […] touching […] a personal story of loss and death that reaches out from the radio. That is what broadcasting is all about”.

Hamilton has also appeared on radio and television in Germany, France, the US, Canada, Turkey, Singapore, Thailand, China and Russia, including a performance of Chopin’s first piano concerto with the Istanbul Chamber Orchestra on Turkish Television, and in a dual role as pianist and presenter for the television programme Mendelssohn in Scotland, broadcast by Deutsche Welle Channel.

Hamilton remains deeply grateful for his pianistic training in Scotland with Lawrence Glover and Ronald Stevenson. His recordings of Stevenson’s music, and of works by a host of other composers, including Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Grainger, Godowsky, Pedro Faria Gomes and John Casken have received outstanding reviews: “played with understanding and brilliance” (Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3 Record Review); “precise control and brilliance” (Andrew Clements, The Guardian); “thrilling” (Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone); “a gorgeous recording and excellent performance” (Jack Sullivan, American Record Guide); “this is real music-making, not subservient reciting from a sacred text (Ralph Locke, ArtsFuse).

Hamilton is a Professor of Music at Cardiff University in Wales. He has been a visiting artist and guest professor at many institutions worldwide, including the Franz Liszt Academy in Hungary, the St Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, and the University of Miami in the US. Travel restrictions permitting, he gives regular masterclasses in China and the Far East. His next album will be Volume 3 of his Liszt series, entitled For Whom the Bell Tolls…


Recorded at Cardiff University School of Music on 20/11/20, 19/8/22, 2/12/23, and 3-4/2/24
Piano: Steinway Model D (Hamburg)
Piano Preparation: Ulrich Gerhartz
Piano Tuning: Gavin Crooks
Recording Producer: Steve Plews
Recording Editor: Phil Hardman
Cover Image: Antonio Joli (1700-1777) “London, A View From The River Thames, with St. Paul’s” Booklet Notes: Kenneth Hamilton
Booklet Editor: Monika Hennemann
Artwork: Simon Crosby Buttle