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Handel’s Variousness Conveyed Beautifully


The Eighth Annual Labor Day concert offered this past Monday by the First Lutheran Church of Boston featured Héloise Dégrugillier, recorder; and Bálint Karosi, harpsichord; performing the six known recorder sonatas by George Frederick Handel.  Though often listed as “Op. 1”, it seems not entirely clear when these works were written.  Most sources place their composition sometime between 1712 and 1727. In any case, they are a charming collection of musical semi-precious stones; some in the form of suites, others in sonata form, and, as a whole, featuring French, German, English, and Italian stylings representative of the composer’s pan-European career.

Dégrugillier conveyed the variousness beautifully. Her playing was easy, fluid, and surprisingly conversational, as if each work were less a song or dance and more a drawing-room chat. This warm, direct approach resulted in an unexpected frankness in some of the slower movements, such as the Siciliana of the F-major sonata, or the oddly textured Andante of the G-minor sonata. Moreover, her tendency toward legato phrasing, even in movements with quick passage-work, led to some remarkable takes on the dance-based movements, such as the Gavotte in the C-major sonata.  No matter the tempo or idiom, she gave each piece a comfortable and attractive air of wieldy familiarity that belied the formidable technical skill it takes to deliver it so effortlessly.

Karosi, who is also both a composer and the Music Minister for the First Lutheran Church, provided solid support for Dégrugillier’s playing. Though reading from the figured-bass part, he seemed not to take full advantage of the freedom that doing so gives his right hand in engaging with the soloist; his accompaniment was stylish, but not particularly responsive, at least melodically. Rhythmically, however, he was right with Dégrugillier, even in passages where her phrasing was somewhat impulsive.  In general, his tack seemed to be stepping back and giving Dégrugillier a lot of textural space to explore her part.  He did, however, have an uncanny ability to give certain fast, repeated textures in the harpsichord—normally a “pingy”-sounding instrument—a compellingly smooth, almost glassy sonority.  This was particularly effective in the second movement of the A-minor sonata and the last movement of the B-flat-major sonata.

The collaboration of these two musicians in the skillfully written, though uncomplicated pieces, was delightful. The performances were both engaging and relaxing; a lovely way to spend a warm summer’s eve.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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