By Inge Kjemtrup | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
What do George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix have in common? Start with the obvious: they were both famous musicians who had a huge influence on generations of musicians that came after them. Here’s a lesser-known commonality: Handel and Hendrix lived in the same red-bricked townhouse on Brook Street in central London.
The museum that today occupies 25 Brook Street reveres both men. There’s something very fitting about the juxtaposition of the Baroque composer with the powerhouse 1960s guitarist, because Handel was, like Hendrix in his time, a kind of pop star.
The idea of Handel as a pop star comes up in a conversation with violinist Bernhard Forck of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. “Handel knew how to move people, how to lead audiences to have all these emotions, even with just a melody and bass line,” says Forck.
And like a modern-day pop celebrity, Handel lived well, and mingled with the great and good, including the royal family, starting with George I, whom Handel had served as kapellmeister when George was still a German prince and Elector of Hannover.
Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and after a formative youthful sojourn in Italy, relocated to London in 1712. In London he thrived, and his operas and oratorios (for the most part) attracted a devoted following. Over time, he became a London institution. Statues were raised and flattering paintings painted.
In 1723, Handel become the first resident of 25 Brook Street, which is located in Mayfair, one of the most well-heeled areas of the British capital. The house was ideal, with enough space for rehearsal and an expanding collection of fine art, as well as a well-furnished kitchen. On the bottom floor, one could buy scores and tickets to Handel’s concerts. (Handel was concerned about his creature comforts, but he was also keen to retain some independence, and while he had aristocratic sponsors, he also earned a crust through performances of his music.) He lived at Brook Street until his death on April 14, 1759.
I talk with Forck about Handel and other Baroque composers: about Telemann and his use of national styles in his music; about Bach, whose love of complexity is a perfect counterpart to Handel. Forck speaks of the Baroque composers as if he knows them personally—which he does, after a fashion.
As a member of period-music ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin since 1983, the year after its founding, Forck has played and recorded many of the great Baroque works. Along with Georg Kallweit and Stephan Mai, he is one of the concertmasters of the Akademie, now considered to be one of the best period-instrument bands in the world.
The Akademie’s latest recording project, on Pentatone, is three volumes of Handel’s 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, regarded alongside Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as one of the jewels of Baroque orchestral music. The final piece of the trilogy will be released August 14. The Sunday Times of London praised the performance on the first volume as “immaculately played . . . free of fashionable eccentricities” while Klassik hailed the ensemble’s “eloquent” playing.
When the Akademie began in 1982, period-instrument performance in East Germany was very new. It taken root elsewhere in Europe earlier—in Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Austria—and the United States, with groups such as Philharmonia Baroque and Boston Baroque.
Forck was studying at the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin when he joined the Akademie, which was small then, “more or less a chamber-music group,” he says. Today the Akademie boasts 25 permanent members, with several original players, including co-founder and concertmaster Mai, still onboard.
Discovering playing styles and repertory proved challenging in the early years of the orchestra. “It was not easy for East Germans to get music and information then,” Forck recalls.
On orchestral tours to the West, Forck and his fellow players soaked up information, keeping their ears open to new playing approaches. “I remember I had the opportunity to go to Trondheim and I met Catherine Mackintosh [the first concertmaster of the UK-based Academy of Ancient Music]. I invited her to play with us.”
The Akademie caught a lucky break when it received a huge collection of instruments and bows from a collector and maker in the orchestra. Forck recalls one summer when the orchestra worked hard every day, “learning how to play in a new language on these instruments.” The Akademie grew and learned. “Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, there was no orchestra like it in East Germany,” says Forck, with justifiable pride in his voice.
As the orchestra grew in experience, it made more contacts and increased its discography. A particular highlight, says Forck, was the relationship with the Belgian conductor René Jacobs.
The first recording of Handel’s Op. 6 only came out last year. Why the wait for such a well-known work? “It took a long time to decide to record these pieces,” Forck says. “For me, recordings of the concertos were too much the same. I wanted to find a special character for each concerto.” For the recording, Forck played and led the orchestra from the concertmaster’s seat.
Handel composed the entire set of 12 in a single month in 1739, from September 29 to October 30. (“Three days for a concerto,” marvels Forck.) Unlike the earlier Op. 3 Concerti Grossi, a grab-bag of material, the Op. 6 is more original, with fewer references back to his earlier works, oratorio, and operas. There’s a reason for that, suggest Forck. “He wanted to show all his experience in his music, to show his mastery of the genre.”
He also was offering a tribute to Arcangelo Corelli, whose own Concerti Grossi Op. 6 were so significant. Handel had met Corelli on his youthful travels in Italy and admired the virtuoso violinist’s exacting standards as an orchestral leader—standards he would impose on his own London orchestras and singers.
As biographer Jonathan Keates notes, Handel was able to steer away from received ideas of musical form by choosing “the Corellian model, in which a variety of movements in differing tempi and styles, mingled the idioms of church and stage, [and] allowed him the free exercise of his mercurial genius.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an established opera composer, Handel is very interested in melody and accompaniment in the concertos. “He has such a way of using melody,” says Forck.
Each concerto is in a different key, with one exception. “There are two in F major, but otherwise they are all different.” They are quirky, says Forck: “No. 7, in B-flat major, has no solo violin, just orchestra.”
Forck’s favorite is No. 8 in C minor, which uses many operatic ideas. “It is very special, starting with the Allemande.” No. 11 in A major is the most virtuosic in the set for the solo violinist. “He knew how to use the instrument,” says Forck. The final concerto, in B minor, honors Handel’s teacher in Halle, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, by using one of his fugal themes. A touching tribute at the end of a compositional tour d’force.
Many things have changed since Forck began with the Akademie. Interest in period-instrument playing has increased exponentially and musicians are now able to dedicate themselves to it. Thanks to the fresh perspectives introduced by early-music performance, “regular orchestras know they cannot play Bach and Mozart as they did before,” says Forck. “There’s great interest in thinking about interpretation and the use of instruments. It is all much more connected now than it was.”
When Handel was writing the Op. 6 in a burst of energy in 1739, London was in an unsettled time. War fever was growing, with British outrage directed at Spain, including its “high-handed behavior towards the English merchants and their ships,” as Keates put it.
In 2020, London, and the world, is unsettled as well, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. I ask Forck how the Akademie is coping. “It is a real disaster,” he says. “It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know the situation even for September and October.”
As I write this, summer is approaching and Germany looks to be returning to a kind of concert culture, starting with live-streaming events featuring ensembles in empty halls. The next steps might be to add small audiences and, then perhaps, allowing open-air concerts. But nothing is certain.
Bernhard Forck, like most of us, is eager for performing life to return, once it is safe, and to pick up the conversation between audience and performer. “I think people are tired of live streaming; I think people would like life streaming,” he says. Handel would no doubt agree heartily.