HANDEL Trio Sonatas Op 2
With their boldness of invention, their expressive range and their extraordinary variety of three-part textures, Handel’s six Op 2 sonatas represent to my mind the ultimate peak of the trio sonata as a genre. Yet for some time there has been no complete recording of the set in the catalogue.
Monica Huggett and her colleagues fill the gap admirably. These are polished and sophisticated performances, with much exquisitely turned detail, precisely echoed between the two violinists, who play as if identical twins. There is a great deal of subtle timing, graceful shaping (try for example the opening movement of No 4) and delicately moulded detail (as in the first movement of No 5), as well as a happy sense of the musical logic (in the second movements of those sonatas, for instance, or the first of No 2). Here and there this careful refinement seems to get a little close to mannerism, for example in No 1 where a small and too persistent rhythmic inflection in the second movement gives an almost mincing effect. That is not the only example. And the Larghetto of No 3, a problematic movement in this context (Handel seems to have borrowed it from the overture to Esther), seems to lose something of its proper grandeur. But there is also some sensitive handling of texture, as in the lovely Largo of that sonata or the third movement of No 6. There is a certain unassuming virtuosity about some of the quick movements, such as the finale of No 2 or the second movements of No 6 and No 3, and it is underpinned by the rhythmic spring that the cellist Joseph Crouch imparts to the bass line. I am not quite so happy about the abrupt endings to most of the movements, which seem curious and unnatural.
The continuo realisation is done on the organ in two sonatas, the harpsichord in the others; in No 1, a flute is used for the top part, as Handel probably intended. Some listeners may feel that these finely modulated performances lack the energy and freshness that ideally belong to the music, but there is a great deal to compensate for that and you won’t often hear this music more attentively, more lovingly played.