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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Reviewer:  Barry Brenesal

The tempos in this new recording of Handel’s opus 5 can sometimes be very, very fast. How fast? Comparisons are considerably more reliable for Baroque suite movements than Romantic symphonic ones. So when I note that the opening movement of the First Sonata in a fine performance featuring Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music (Harmonia Mundi 907467) takes 86 bpm, while this one takes 126 bpm, you’ll get some sense of what I mean. Handel (or at least Walsh, who presumably had the tempo indications from him) lists this movement at an andante, but Al Ayre Español under Eduardo López Banzo’s direction clearly perceives the usual slower renditions as both too sedate, and presumably as a poor way to start off a performance. The same sonata’s second allegro finds the Egarr and the Academy this time at 126 bpm—but Banzo flashes it by at a quicksilver 152 bpm.

Yet the tempos work. In part, this is because Al Ayre Español is a technically proficient ensemble; in part, because they don’t push the edge of their technique as, for example, Gunar Letzbor’s Ars Antiqua Austria sometimes does. It helps, too, that Banzo is nuanced in his approach, usually providing at least one movement per major key trio sonata that functions as a slow contrast to the rest. In the case above, that would be the middle movement of the five, a larghetto, where Egarr and crew are actually a bit faster. The slower tempo also allows Banzo, who plays the harpsichord, to ornament stylishly.

Another instance of this flexible approach to tempo is the Third Sonata, whose first movement is treated as marked—an andante larghetto—while the second-movement allegro is taken at an andante. As a rule of thumb, it is the minor key sonatas whose movements proceed much as we moderns would take their tempo markings, with crisp attacks and a close attention to dynamics that emphasizes their dramatic element. (As an aside, not a few of these movements derived their inspiration from specific anthems and operas by Handel.)

The major key sonatas are the ones whose fast movements stand out, not just for speed, but for clarity and accent—and occasionally, too, for surprise. Banzo experiments with the Fifth Sonata’s first allegro, taking the break that concludes the fast first section with a resonating but unsounded tonal cluster on the harpsichord, before the much slower, chromatic minor key second section begins. This sets up the following adagio, where Banzo takes the place of one of violin parts. No, it’s certainly not authentic, but it’s clever theater. Whatever else one may think of this release from a scholarly standpoint, it’s conceptually brilliant and brought off with panache.

After listening several times to Al Ayre Español’s Handel I find myself won over—not so much by the group’s performance skill, as by the careful shaping that attends each work. Banzo clearly views these trio sonatas as distinct entities, whatever their disparate origins. The minor key pieces in particular are sequenced as though part of an expressive progression. It’s not mainstream Handel, but as highly individualized as it is, succeeds on its merits. This isn’t a first version of the opus 5 to get by any means, but it’s easily the most exciting available, and in some respects one of the most thoughtful.



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