The Secret Handel features Christopher Hogwood in a role we haven't had from him in awhile -- that of solo keyboard player minus his ensemble, the Academy of Ancient Music. This also appears to be his debut with the parvenu British early music label Metronome after spending many years working with the now defunct L'Oiseau Lyre label. On this two-disc set, Hogwood utilizes clavichords rather than the standard harpsichord for Handel's music in a selection of 18 works most likely written with the clavichord in mind. Also featured is a pair of pieces by Johann Philipp Krieger and Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow that Handel would have known in his formative years, as he alludes to them in later works. Hogwood employs three museum-grade instruments; a 1761 clavichord built by Johann Albrecht Hass, one built by Johann Jacob Bodechtal and finally a Gräbner clavichord also built in 1761. In the rare four-hand clavichord Suite in C minor, HWV 446, Hogwood is joined by Derek Adlam on a second instrument that is a copy of one similar to the Hass.
About the only objection that could be raised against The Secret Handel is what's so "secret" about it? Most of these pieces are known, and listeners will easily recognize the Aria and variations in G, HWV 430/4a, as the familiar variation set known as "The Harmonious Blacksmith." As with most Baroque composers of Handel's stature, his work found extensive circulation in manuscript copies, and the content of these copies tends to vary. This version of "The Harmonious Blacksmith" is lacking the bass notes commonly played at the beginning of the piece; therefore, it represents a previously unheard eighteenth century variant. Some may argue that the piece is better with its ground intact, but this version might reflect Handel's original thoughts a bit more than the familiar incarnation. The disc is rich with such alternate readings of works well known, including some contemporary keyboard versions of movements from the Water Music Suite, but even the obscure items are worth hearing, especially as played by Christopher Hogwood, who has a great sense of how to make these puny little clavichords sing.
Metronome's recording is close and of excellent fidelity, and it may be a little too close for some, as the clavichord is a quiet instrument that nonetheless elicits a lot of racket from interior workings and rapid finger strokes. The disc warns not to play too loudly, as these details become immediately evident and can become distracting. If this is not a deterrent, then Hogwood's The Secret Handel would be a welcome addition to anyone's library, particularly those who fancy period keyboard instruments.