This is not the album I’m discussing below, but I’d recommend clicking “Play” anyway and enjoying the music as you read:
Trust me on this one, and thank you for reading.
This was one of the first classical recordings I ever purchased:
After years of awareness that many of my jazz heroes listened to symphonies, sonatas and operas, and after finally getting over my teenaged prejudice against un-improvised music, I was ready to appreciate the stuff. Like it or not, classical music is an influential art form, and it was good enough for Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong. It was time for me to get with the program.
I already had some experience with Bach and Vivaldi (whose music stills resounds with me as the most uninhibited and “jazz-like” in the entire tradition), but I was ready to try other avenues. The new releases wall in the classical section at Tower Records in the East Village seemed like a logical place to start, and almost immediately became a really inundating experience (I’d kill to be overwhelmed in a record store now, but that’s a whole other issue).
Then I found this disc. There was something refined yet earnest about the cover: two guys (with fancy foreign names to boot!) playing some rather dignified-looking instruments on a simple grey background. They were artists, there to make music, no frills or flashy imagery needed. “Violin sonatas” also sounded pretty substantial. I knew the name “Handel” but didn’t know who he was. With that type of subconscious star power, Handel must be a serious composer. The music itself was probably some crucial piece of Western art, the stuff that listeners and performers like Hawk and Satch were well aware of, and here was another traversal of this time-tested music. An important looking and important sounding album means important music, right?
Yet when I got home and popped this rarefied sucker into my stereo, it bowled me over for the same reasons as a lot of music I loved but which never made it into the history books. The melodies were set in that elegant but emotive style I would come to associate with Handel, a holdover from the operatic career I would also come to learn was his main historical claim to fame. Yet simply as a series of notes succeeding one another, it was all touching, catchy and simply beautiful. The timbre of Hiro Kurosaki’s violin and William Christie’s harpsichord were very different from the saxophones, trumpets and rhythm sections I was used to. Somehow the purity and sincerity of their sound got me hooked immediately. The really big deal was how Kurosaki moved on his eighteenth century axe: quickly, incisively and in the end just like any skilled, sincere musician strutting his stuff. Pity that Lester Young and Hank Mobley never got hear it!
Perhaps most incredible was that even with my very modest musical training, I didn’t get the sense that Handel was doing anything that would make impress a musicologist. He was laying down some great melodies and exciting moments over flowing harmonic progressions. Yet there was none of the dense counterpoint I already recognized from Bach’s music, or juicy harmonic turns of phrase that already kept me coming back to Mozart. I did like how Handel alternated fast and slow movements, like he was a bandleader or DJ switching between fast and slow numbers. That turned out to be just a formal convention. The harpsichord filled out harmonic textures with a rich but transparent sound, and offered some bumping bass lines, but it was strictly accompaniment; no keyboard solos or intricate dialogs with the violin anywhere. This was just lead and accompaniment, but it was amazing. It was good music, to me.
The liner notes focused on the history of the music, such as which themes were recycled from earlier works or reused in later pieces. They also revealed that this album included a few imposter sonatas that made it into editions published under Handel’s name. Just to confuse matters further, I actually liked those too!
Determined to get to the bottom of things, I kept digging. Internet research only clarified just how messed up the authenticity and publication history of this music was. Critics didn’t seem too interested in these works, and by extension neither did performers. When Google did mention Handel’s sonatas, it was mostly descriptions of their “unique lyric character” and “strong rhythmic motives.” No one described any surprising compositional craft beneath the surface, or intricacies that my untrained ears were missing out on. Handel’s violin sonatas seemed liked “good music” to me but didn’t seem like important music to others.
Over the years I’ve kept up my research, poring over liner notes from new releases and reading reviews. I’ve read a lot about these sonatas’ performance practice as well as their publication history. I still discover nuances to listen for. So far no one has unearthed anything earth shattering about Handel’s violin sonatas. It might be out there, buried in some dissertation I’m too lazy to pore through JSTOR to find. The truth is I no longer care. At this point if I discovered that Handel was the first composer to use a particular chord or require some unusual tuning for the violin, it really wouldn’t add anything to these works, for me.
More importantly, I’ve continued listening to these works, and even with new releases of them, kept coming back to this album. Kurosaki and Christie truly are a dynamic duo: elegant but never stuffy, supple, perfectly balanced, with lyrical slow movements and athletic fast ones. I don’t have any favorites sonatas or movements to pick out, though I understand why the D major sonata is considered Handel’s finest in the genre, and a copy of the Italianate, three-movement anomaly in this set is definitely already waiting for me on that desert island. The whole disc is there. It really is just good music.
Unfortunately it’s good music with a spotty presence on YouTube, hence the suggestion to listen to the different but nonetheless spectacular complete version that I hope you’ve been enjoying as you read.