Handel in Ireland | Bach: Partitas; Chopin: Preludes

Bridget Cunningham (Rose Street RSR 002) | Víkingur Ólafsson (piano) Hands on Music/Dirrindí

2 August 20114.5 stars4.5 stars

CunninghamBridget Cunningham's first solo harpsichord album is her second disc on the young Rose Street Records label to explore early Irish themes, this time through Handel's stay in Ireland from 1741 to 1742. The programme is built around two works by Handel, a keyboard arrangement, probably his own, of the overture to Esther and the seventh suite in G minor. There is are also a suite by Roseingrave, a Sonatina by Carter, and two virtuosic arrangements of arias from Handel's Rinaldo by Babell. The disc finishes with two bonus tracks of Irish folk tunes known to Handel, one of which he wrote one out in his Messiah manuscript and which is previously unrecorded.

The disc begins with Babell's reworking of Vo far Guerra, which, to the best of my knowledge, remains unpublished and which Cunningham plays directly from a facsimile of the manuscript. It is an astonishing thirteen minutes long, which, when you consider the original aria is about five minutes, gives some indication of just what is meant by 'virtuosic'. Despite its length, no one could accuse Cunningham of playing slowly, far from it: technically she is dazzling, passing through the many arpeggiated passages and cadenzas with seeming ease. There is humour in this arrangement and in Cunningham's performance too; his huge chords at about 6'30" and her timing of the various sections leave the listener with the impression that this is a celebration of a much-admired aria rather than a simply showy arrangement.

This first track sets a precedent for the whole album which could be summed up as a heady cocktail of fondness and resonance. These are clearly much-loved works which Cunningham communicates in the care she takes over her performance, but, more than that, her playing really makes the harpsichord sing. This is particularly noticeable in Handel's seventh suite, the Allegro of which she plays with the manuals coupled. So many times one hears lumpen and awkward performances of such busy music, but not here, the resonance of her playing, the instrument and the recording combine to capture that illusive 'singing tone'. Magical.

Cunningham plays a double manual Blanchet copy of Ruckers by Wooderson 1996 and a double manual Blanchet copy by Goble 1988. The bonus track 'Aileen Aroon', which one famous anecdote relates that Handel wished he had composed, also includes a baroque harp made by Waghorn. The booklet draws on her published research into Handel's period in Ireland.

OlafssonWhereas I have never been quite convinced by performances of Handel's works on the piano, in this post-authenticity period piano-Bach has become something of a passion of mine. This second album from Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson, on the indie label Hands on Music/Dirrindí, is sure to intrigue and delight a wide audience.

Bach and Chopin make for a great programme, and this one is elegantly introduced by Ólafsson in his liner notes and rests on several connections between the two men. Firstly, and most obviously is that Chopin was a great admirer of Bach; he played and studied Bach's music throughout his life and even took it with him to Mallorca during convalescence whilst he was writing his own 24 preludes. More than that though, the polyphonic nature of Bach's music infuses Chopin's own style and, as Ólafsson puts it, 'Even with all its abundance of inspired melodies, Chopin's music is always contrapuntal: even the simplest melodic accompaniments are elevated to refined organisms of polyphonic complexity.'

In performance terms Ólafsson finds more intimate connections between the works of these two great composers through the 'singing tone' of inner voices as much as the melodic content. This, I think, is the holy grail of all Bach pianists: the balancing of textures on the modern piano. Ólafsson skilfully avoids the usual pitfalls, namely playing Bach in an overly crisp or minimally phrased way as if emulating a harpsichord or worse, smudging the texture and just bringing fugal entries to the foreground before drowning them in the homogeneous mush of the sustain pedal after just a few notes. Here, thankfully, Ólafsson keeps his texture clear and opts for a touch which sings.

The refreshing nature of Bach's Preludes affords a perfect calm before the storm of Chopin's magisterial Preludes. Having spend many years listening to the recordings of theseses exactly what he preaches with inner voices afforded an impressive illumination so that each Prelude truly is a 'refined organism of polyphonic complexity'. In places he chooses faster tempi that I would normally like – the famous A-flat major prelude (No. 17), for example, could maybe benefit from a more indulgent pace – but such decisions are, I suspect, the reason why his disc flows so well. Ólafsson really convinces the listener that these preludes belong together, making for a spectacular programme.

Beautifully recorded in Mendelssohn Hall, Gewandhaus, Leipzig this disc is well worth seeking out by fans of either the Bach or Chopin camp and Ólafsson is surely a pianist to listen out for.

By Ed Breen