Reassessing Handel with the help of a restored 1773 Kirckman harpsichord

Erin Helyard is internationally recognised as a leading baroque music specialist, virtuosic soloist and inspired conductor. Here, he discusses his debut solo album featuring the keyboard works of George Frideric Handel, and the instrument on which he performed them.

By Dr Erin Helyard, Senior Lecturer in Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.  

I recently released my debut solo album, surveying the keyboard works of the baroque composer George Frideric Handel. Drawing on my knowledge of Handel’s operas and playing on a unique, recently-restored, instrument from 1773 capable of dynamic shading, I was able to reassess the works of Handel as well as some of his contemporaries.

Performers and composers had very close and fruitful relationships with instrument builders back in the 18th and 19th centuries. CPE Bach and Silbermann, Mozart and Anton Walter, Beethoven and Nannette Streicher, and Liszt and Sebastian Érard are just some of the few that come to mind.

Erin Helyard plays the 1773 Kirckman harpsichord. By Hamish Lane, ABC.

My own close relationship with a builder has been with Carey Beebe, who has been my colleague and friend since I was a teenager first trying out harpsichords. Carey approached me last year to say that he had completed a restoration of a 1773 Kirckman single with a machine stop, and to ask if I would be interested in recording on it. My answer? Well, yes, of course – and that’s the instrument on which I recorded this album.

Kirckman was an extremely famous and renowned English builder of harpsichords and, as my PhD research had been based around Muzio Clementi’s exposure to these kinds of instruments in the 1770s in London, my interest was piqued.

Revival

Since the historical harpsichord revival in the 1970s, players and builders have unnecessarily ignored the English tradition – partly because it was unfairly assumed that no great composer had written for these instruments. The reality is that these magnificently constructed instruments were highly-prized on the continent as well as in England.

The 1773 Kirckman, for instance, has some of the most beautifully machined jacks I’ve ever seen, as well as some of the most superb joinery. Owners of English harpsichords had a large variety of imported and local repertoire. Of the imports, the most notable favourite was the music of Scarlatti. 

Erin Helyard conducts The Tale of Orpheus, 2017, produced by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in association with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. By Sarah Walker.

The 1773 Kirckman harpsichord is equipped with a particularly English piece of technology, the so-called “machine stop”. This pedal enabled me to make very quick and often nuanced registration changes in order to affect different dynamics and textures.

I have used the device as idiomatically as the music suggests, mostly to enhance implied ritornelli/tutti divisions in fugal movements as well creating more subtle and exciting effects that are rarely heard on recording or on performance. The earliest machine stop dates from the late 1740s, so it is entirely possible that Handel would have heard or experimented with one, even if his playing days were behind him by then.  

The work of Handel over the last few decades has engaged me mostly as an opera conductor. Like Handel himself, I have conducted many of his operas from the keyboard, as was often the way in his era. Handel, born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, considered himself an Englishman after emigrating to the UK in 1710. In his new country he encountered and played upon English harpsichords in addition to (mainly Flemish) imports. The work of the founder of the firm, Jacob Kirckman, would have been known to Handel. 

Erin Helyard plays the 1773 Kirckman harpsichord. By Hamish Lane, ABC.

Handel was renowned as a virtuoso keyboardist in his day so it is somewhat sad that only a small corpus of music composed by him exists, mainly dating from his early years in London. His operatic career soon intervened and he seems to have left composing for the keyboard aside.

 

Handel’s music has always been somewhat marginalised by keyboardists as it is often (unfairly) compared with that of Bach and Scarlatti.

After discussions with Toby Chadd, manager of ABC Classics, we decided that, given my unique experience with Handel opera, it would be interesting to focus an album on the many transcriptions of arias from his operas as well as some of the so-called “Great Suites” of Handel himself.  

Handel uses a rather skeletal notation in some of these suites, and often ornamentation is left to the performer. This incomplete notation may partly explain the haphazard reception the works have received in the 20th and 21st century. In this recording, I have been inspired by my own research into this improvisatory culture, and have attempted to ornament in the very florid style that I believe Handel and his contemporaries would have recognised. 

What is so remarkable about the “Great Suites” are their extraordinarily eclectic and wide-ranging deployment of styles and genres. Besides the traditional dance elements of the Franco-German keyboard suite (allemandescourantessarabandes, and gigues) there are dense fugues, overtures in the French style, Italian sonatas and arias, preludes in both incomplete and highly precise notation, and variation forms.

The suites give us the impression of a performer and composer who was highly sophisticated, well-travelled, open-minded, and cosmopolitan. It reveals a keyboardist who had quite a large hand span and a predilection for the German vollstimmig (or fully-voiced) style and was equally at home with both Italianate virtuosity, German profundity, and French élan.

I also tried to bring out the vocal qualities that I know so well from my engagement with Handel operas, an effect often heightened by the expressive capabilities of the machine stop. 

The resulting recording, I hope, pays testament both to Handel and the harpsichord.

Erin Helyard – Handel: Great Suites is available now.

Banner image. Erin Helyard, by Robert Catto.