Olwen Foulkes: Directed by Handel

Directed by Handel
Music from Handel’s London Theatre Orchestra
Olwen Foulkes, recorder
Barn Cottage Recordings, bcr019. 64’04

The decline of the recorder as a serious classical music instrument has long been predicted, for reasons that are quite beyond me. As an example, some years ago I was shocked to hear somebody involved with a well-known young artists competition in the north of the UK comment that a recorder player or consort would never win first prize. But evidence shows that recorder music and players are going from strength to strength, not least with through an impressive cohort of young performers making their way onto the professional circuit. One such is Olwen Foulkes a recent prize-winning graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music where she obtained a Distinction and DipRAM award for her MMus degree. I first heard and reviewed her at the 2016 Royal Academy of Music’s early music prize competition, where she was part of the prizewinning group, of two recorder players plus cello and harpsichord continuo. This is her debut recording. 

In a very well-planned programme, Olwen Faulkes explores the music performed by the musicians of Handel’s London theatres. The idea stemmed from a residency at the Handel & Hendrix Museum in London, which contains many pictures of theatrical life during the lifetime of Handel, which led to Olwen’s own research into the musicians and the music of Handel’s theatre. Most of the pieces are Olwen Faulkes’ own arrangements of works originally intended for other instruments. The main exception is Handel’s F major Recorder Sonata (HWV 369), a piece that Handel himself (or, more likely his rather maverick publisher, John Walsh) re-arranged as an organ concerto. In this piece, as in several others, Olwen Faulkes demonstrate her impressive understanding of 18th-century ornamentation practice.

The CD opens with Corelli, the composer who had the greatest influence on 18th-century instrumental music. His delightful Sonata in C (Op5/10) was originally intended for violin but it works well on recorder. Also included is a Sonata by Corelli’s student, violinist Pietro Castrucci, the leader of the Haymarket Theatre orchestra. Another Corelli student was Geminiani, here represented by his Cello Sonata in F (H.107). Handel’s principal oboist was Sammartini, once described as the ‘greatest the world has ever seen’. Olwen Faulkes has transcribed one of his Sonatas for flute, oboe, or violin, using the haunting sound of Tabea Debus’s bass recorder alongside the continuo harpsichord. An Air transcribed from a keyboard Suite by Handel’s favourite amanuensis, John Christoper Smith, acknowledges the role Smith played in Handel’s later life. A particularly interesting addition to the programme are two arrangements of vocal arias from Handel’s opera Tesoro, a reflection of the practice of the time of arranging such arias for the recorder

Olwen Foulkes playing is excellent, producing a beautifully controlled and mellifluous tone which she combines with an impressive sense of musical detail as well as the longer melodic phrase. She also provides well-written programme notes describing the music of Handel’s theatre musicians.

Although this is clearly a CD focussed on the recorder soloist, the other four musicians (Nathaniel Mander, harpsichord, Carina Drury, cello, Tabea Debus, bass recorder, and Toby Carr, theorbo) get a very fair share of the honours. As well as her role as a continuo player, cellist Carina Drury is the expressive soloist in Geminiani’s Sonata in F (H.107). Nathaniel Mander provides very effective harpsichord continuo as well as his solo performance of John Blow’s Mortlake Ground – a piece from an earlier generation of London’s musicians.

Photographs of the recording sessions can be found here.

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