Handel's 1720 Eight Great Suites for keyboard, despite being comparatively neglected in his output, have received many fine and diverse recordings over the years. On piano, Sviatoslav Richter's late-seventies reading of these eclectic and colourful works has long been a favourite, whilst Scott Ross' 1984 harpsichord version has proved something of a benchmark of emotional maturity and technical assurance.
Jory Vinikour's performance of the Suites — with a stunningly dramatic Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435 added in for good measure — matches the Ross in depth and in technique. Vinikour adds a real scholarly insight (which is augmented by his informative and lucid sleeve notes) to his performances. This, along with the strikingly warm and animated harpsichord sound, which positively soars out of John Phillips' 2001 copy of an extended-bass 1739 Gräbner, mark this recording out as distinct, and quite special.
Each Suite has something to recommend it — whether it be a dazzling Gigue (the F minor), a sombre but sublime fugue and a thrilling toccata (D minor), a wonderfully elegant Allemande (E minor), or a dizzying fugal Allegro (F major) — and Vinikour consistently rises to the occasion. He sparkles in the fast sections, and languishes appealingly in the slower movements. Vinikour has nimble fingers, and his sharpness with inner voicing in fast contrapuntal sections is complemented by a steady grip on foreground details of line and development. The Allegro from the F major Suite is given new layers of interlocking and separated resonances here, whilst Vinikour alternates fantastically grand thematic statements with sudden, propulsive counterpoint in the Presto from the D minor Suite, all at breakneck speed.
Vinikour's Allemandes are stately and full of style; the E major and D minor examples especially glow across a wide range of colours and intensities. The probing emotions of these movements may not quite match Richter's transcendence, but they surely impress nonetheless. Vinikour comes very close to the Russian in the aching dying away of the G minor Sarabande, however. The variation forms are highpoints of the release, with Vinikour showing himself skilled in injecting variety whilst always holding on fast to the overall progression. The aforementioned G major Chaconne features joyous passagework, dexterous swapping of hands, and a lovely lightness of touch, all contained within a moving progression from major to minor, and back again. His Air and doubles from the E Major suite (the so-called Harmonious Blacksmith) outlines a carefully-measured expansion from intimacy to majestic song at the close, whilst his G minor Passacaglia makes a rousing virtue of the choppy form and the intricate harmonic design.
The overall smooth flow of compositional brio and invention is broken only by the rather grave F minor Suite, which is given here with perhaps a little too much austerity. Apart from this, the release comes highly recommended; Vinikour's attentiveness to detail, the immediacy of the harpsichord sound (which may not be to everyone's taste, admittedly), and the general incisiveness of the playing, make for a consistently exhilarating listening experience.
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