Handel’s keyboard suites have remained strangers to most concert pianists. Seong-Jin Cho hopes that his latest album for Deutsche Grammophon will shed new light on some of the most heartfelt of all Baroque music. Set for release on 3 February 2023, The Handel Project contains three of the 28-year-old South Korean pianist’s favourite suites from Handel’s first collection of Suites de pièces pour le clavecin. These are coupled with Brahms’s virtuosic Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which Cho believes to be “the best variations that have ever been written”.
The artist was drawn to Handel’s keyboard suites after years of immersion in music from later periods. Having fallen in love with their wealth of musical ideas and wide-ranging melodic invention, Cho listened to recordings of the works on harpsichord, the instrument for which they were conceived, and refined his finger technique in order to give different tone colours and weight to Handel’s contrapuntal lines. He has avoided the sustaining pedal as much as possible, but modified some of the dynamic markings in order to exploit the potential of a modern piano.
“Of course, Bach is the most popular Baroque composer,” notes Cho. “But I discovered Handel’s suites a few years ago and realised that they contain so many great pieces, which are not so often played by pianists on a modern piano. I don’t remember when I first heard Handel’s music, but I have been interested in works by Baroque composers – Handel, Rameau, Couperin – since I was a teenager. I really wanted to explore this kind of music and was very happy to record this Handel album. For me, Handel’s music comes directly from the heart, so people can easily follow it.”
Seong-Jin Cho selected a trio of pieces from the first of Handel’s two volumes of keyboard suites, originally published in London in 1720 in response to a contemporary edition of pirated copies of what the composer called keyboard “lessons”. The Handel Project opens with the Adagio from Suite No. 2 in F major HWV 427, an aria-without-words that prefaces a sequence of fast-slow-fast movements. Suite No. 8 in F minor HWV 433 begins with a melancholy Prelude that gives way to a rousing fugue, an elegant Allemande, and a lively closing combination of Courante and Gigue. Cho crowns his choice of three pieces with Suite No. 5 in E major HWV 430, famed for its final-movement Air and Variations, better known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith”.
The pianist was also keen to explore the ways in which Handel influenced later composers and so chose to record Brahms’s enormously creative response to music from one of the suites as well. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel were composed within the space of a few weeks in September 1861, a remarkable achievement given the work’s inventive breadth and variety of moods. Brahms based his twenty-five variations on the Air from Handel’s Suite No. 3 in B flat major HWV 434, a simple theme on which Handel himself built four short variations. The composition’s technical challenges and musical complexity make high demands on its performers. “I think Brahms’s Fugue is a work of genius,” says Cho. “Even though there are so many new ideas in the piece, he maintains the idea of Handel. The Fugue is like a big mountain that we know is hard to climb. When I get to the climax of this piece, I feel so relieved. And I become very emotional.”
The album concludes with two individual movements from Handel’s second volume of Suites de pièces pour le clavecin, published in 1733: a Sarabande in B flat major (HWV 440/3), and Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of a Menuetto in G minor. “I found Kempff’s transcription online a few years ago,” recalls the pianist. “I felt it was very beautiful and thought I’d love to play it one day.”
Seong-Jin Cho is set to take his Handel Project programme on the road to coincide with the release of the album. He launches his eight-date recital tour in Hanover on 5 February 2023, with his itinerary also including performances in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Dortmund, London, Milan, Berlin and Vienna.