Handel Overtures (harpsichord)
It feels not so long ago that a disc of Handel overtures looked a likelier bet for a recording company than a complete opera. How times have changed! Yet this must be the first time that a collection of overtures from Handel’s operas and oratorios has appeared in which they are all played on solo harpsichord. Not that there is any reason why they should not be; Handel is known to have performed them thus, a handful of transcriptions survive in his own hand, and John Walsh published no fewer than 60 in a single book in the 1750s. It seems they were not all equally expertly done (evidently several hack transcribers were involved), but John Kitchen has here chosen eight which appear to render the original textures onto the keyboard as successfully as we have much right to expect.
What emerges most strongly from these performances is the generous variety of these overtures, from the patriotic grandeur of the Occasional Oratorio to the lightness of Athalia, and from the public drama of Saul to the sheer sparkiness of Teseo. To separate these characters must be hard enough with an orchestra but to do so on a harpsichord is surely a creditable achievement, as is that of skilfully avoiding the ear-wearying clatteriness to which such transcriptions can be prone. Mind you, Kitchen is undoubtedly aided by two distinguished 18th-century harpsichords from the Raymond Russell Collection in Edinburgh: a big 1755 Kirckman for the overtures and a surprisingly rich and feisty 1709 single-manual by Thomas Barton for the two early suites which make effective interludes in this pleasant and unusual programme.