Hank Knox

Handel: Domestic Opera

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Arrangements of Baroque opera for home use remain a little-explored field, but, as with opera in other eras prior to the advent of recording, they appeared in substantial numbers. One British publisher, Walsh, issued 11 volumes of Handel arrangements for solo keyboard, wrote Canadian harpsichordist Hank Knox in his excellent booklet notes (in French and English) for the present release, and many of those went into multiple printings. This disc gives a sampling, although it's not clear how many of the pieces are those issued by Walsh. Several come from suites (charmingly misspelled "suits" in the original publication) by one William Babell, combining versions of Handelian opera arias (many from the highly successful Rinaldo) with preludes of his own composition. Other arrangements may have been done by Handel himself. The entire program is both entertaining and uniformly fascinating. The revelation is the degree of ornamentation that appears in these arrangements. Sample the famed "Lascio ch'ia pianga" from Rinaldo (track four), which seems to get an extra "i" in the track list, at least as far as one can tell with the evil reversed type. The stately melody is not just varied in repetitions, it is heavily encrusted in ornaments from the start. What this means about vocal practice isn't clear. Perhaps the ornamentation is specific to keyboard music, and perhaps it's even specific to Babell, who was the recipient of a magnificently snarky critical evaluation from Charles Burney (reproduced in the booklet). But it shows at the very least how flexible the conception of a basic Baroque melody could be. Most extreme of all is the 11-minute elaboration on "Vo far guerra" (track 19), also from Rinaldo. This is not just a keyboard adaptation or ornamented version of the aria, but a full-fledged virtuoso fantasy that, as much as any other surviving piece of documentation, supports the old saw about Baroque music and jazz having a lot in common. Babell uses the aria merely as a point of departure for cadenza-like displays based on the melodic material. Knox makes the intriguing suggestion that this piece could have inspired the unexpected harpsichord cadenza in J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with J.C. Bach the conduit for the publication. Another intriguing aspect of the album is the collection of harpsichords used, all drawn from a single English collection. The instrument by Swiss-English builder Burkat Shudi and Johannes Broadwood, from 1770, would soon face competition from the up-and-coming fortepianos produced by their own firm and others. It included various devices for generating dynamic contrasts, several of which are employed here in Knox's colorful, kinetic performances. An excellent job all around from Knox and the early-music.com label, which has been successfully drawing on the large pool of top-notch talent available in the Montreal area.

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