Handel, Great Suites, Erin Helyard

Handel
Great Suites et al
Erin Helyard hpscd
ABC Classics 4815711

“Many of Handel’s movements are skeletal, awaiting the skill of the performer to bring them to full life… (but) what we consider ‘tasteful’ today is often at odds with the highly varied vocabulary of swift and expressive ornaments that seems to have been part of the repertoire of improvisatory play amongst soloists at the time.” This, from that eminently learned yet pragmatic conductor and keyboardist Erin Helyard’s booklet notes to his superb recording of half of Handel’s so-called Eight Great Suites for harpsichord, gives you a sense of the floridity and fervour to be found therein.

There is no shortage of fine recordings of this repertoire on both harpsichord and piano (though the music is never as satisfying on the latter as it is on the former), chief among my favourites being those by Richard Egarr, Sophie Yates, Paul Nicholson and, on piano, Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt and Danny Driver. Yet there is something extraordinary about Helyard’s performances. That he is an innovative Handelian in the theatre is beyond question – witness his recent Saul at the Adelaide Festival – but he is rarely heard as a soloist. And that is a pity, because he brings all the colour and drama he displays in opera to the keyboard, in this instance assisted by a beautiful 1773 Kirckman equipped with a “machine stop”, which allows piano-like dynamics and other effects. Add to that the facility and freedom afforded to a soloist to embellish ex tempore – which Helyard does here lavishly though always on the right side of that ‘tasteful’ – and you have a remarkable listening experience that manages to evoke an entire musical world.

If this is not clear from the outset with a magisterial performance of Handel’s famous G Major Chaconne or the spacious trills in the following Adagio from Suite No 2 in F, it will be more than apparent by the time you reach the richly embellished Suite No 6 in F Sharp Minor, an already astonishingly inventive work of remarkable expressive power. The final work, William Babell’s suite based on transcriptions of music from Handel’s opera Rinaldo is the icing on the cake, with Helyard utterly in his element.