Handel Organ Concerti

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Published: 28th January, 2017
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The Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival continued its exposure of the repertoire of the solo organ on January 18 with a performance by visiting Italian organist Giampaolo di Rosa in the Former Wesley Methodist Church in Clunes. He was accompanied by the Festival Chamber Orchestra.

Di Rosa, an organist with great experience of the repertoire, has been a frequent visitor to the Festival, although this was the first time I had heard him. The concert program was bookended by two of Handel’s organ concertos, works written for the kind of modest organ well represented by the organ of the church.

The works on the program were:

Handel, Organ concerto HWV 294 (the first on the program)

Handel, Organ concerto HWV 295 (the second on the program)

Froberger, Capriccioso

Bach, Variation No 25 from Goldberg Variations

Di Rosa, Improvisation

Much of di Rosa’s playing on the almost chamber-scaled organ of the Clunes church was right on the money — quirky, lissom, and tuneful where needed.

Organist and orchestra gave a fine reading of the concerto Op. 4 No 6, better known in its form as a harp concerto. Both partners in the concerto characterised the motifs of the faster movements well, although the inner movement needed slightly more density and passion of string sound in particular.

The second concerto on the program, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” suffered from the same problems, as well as the occasional blip in ensemble co-ordination between the soloist and the orchestra. As well, Di Rosa interpolated a cadenza/improvisation between the first and second movements in a style that was distinctly at odds with the surrounding musical material.

This performance did not have a conductor, instead sharing directorial responsibilities between the concertmaster and the soloist. Perhaps for that reason the ensemble was not always as tight as it could have been. Some of the musical shapes also seemed erratic to me — the orchestral playing was marked by a pretty heavy reliance on staccato articulations, resulting in the sacrifice of some of the densely lush melodic playing that Handel frequently calls for.

Richer characterisation of more of the musical material was clearly also called for in the orchestral parts, rather than conceiving the orchestral music as a mere accompaniment to the organ part.

Di Rosa, too, however, made some odd musical choices; like the orchestra too often preferring detached articulation to something more joined. This marked his concerto playing but was particularly obvious in the three solo pieces he played. The first of these, the twenty-fifth variation of Bach’s Goldberg variations, one of the most plangently expressive of the variations, was almost unrecognisable in the almost pointillist performance di Rosa gave it. His performance of a Froberger Capriccio, however, benefited from this approach, with di Rosa giving incisive definition to the motifs of sections of this work.

The middle solo work was quite tediously long. The Festival encourages organists to play improvisations as a way of keeping alive this essential tradition, but di Rosa’s improvisation, a chain of passagework outstayed its welcome. The organ had insufficient colour at its disposal to maintain interest over length.

The use of the organs of the goldfields regions, some of them fine instruments in good condition in pretty but forgotten towns, is one of the many acts of advocacy in which the festival engages. This is admirable policy, but some instruments used in this Festival do need attention – to do justice to the performers and the works they are playing.

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Photo: Detail of the organ of St John’s Anglican Church, Creswick: left drawstop jamb [photograph by Geoffrey Cox, 2016).