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Two takes on Handel’s Largo

Earlier this evening I had an email from a friend asking if I ever played the Largo from Handel’s opera Xerxes on the abbey organ. “Ha!” I replied. “I haven’t played the Largo since I was a first-year organ student.”

My friend caught my offhandedly rude dismissal of the Largo. He’s a trained musician and former music reviewer. The Largo is considered a bit of a cliché. But if you return to the Largo with fresh ears, it’s actually a stunning piece of music that deserves its eternal fame. After my friend mentioned it, I went to YouTube looking for interesting performances on the organ. I ended up — naturally — with Diane Bish.

Diane Bish is so flamboyant and Liberace-like an organist that one is prejudiced against her on sight. But after listening to some of her superb playing, one realizes that she is one of the greatest of living organists. I only wish that I could adequately point out some of the details in her playing of this well-known piece. For one, she uses the organ’s crescendo pedal, which is considered a no-no for most sorts of music, as a matter of musical taste. The crescendo pedal pours on the stops as you press down on it, all the way up to everything the organ’s got. When she looks down to her right at 1:09, she’s looking to make sure that her foot is on the crescendo pedal, because she’s about to let loose with the organ’s power (she starts pulling back on the pedal at about 1:29). At the dynamic peaks of the piece (around 2:35 and 3:40) she has arrived at ff approaching full organ courtesy of the crescendo pedal. Pulling back on the pedal, of course, permits the smooth and rapid fading. The crescendo pedal is one of the pedals that looks like the accelerator on a Mac truck.

The next thing to notice is her use of rubato. Rubato playing is a violation of strict, metronomic tempo. At 2:08, notice how she delays the notes and is a tiny fraction of a beat behind the beat on some of the key notes of the melody. Rubato playing is quite usual for later romantic-era music, such as Chopin. Or even Brahms. To play rubato for a composer who was born in 1685 is dangerously heretical. But Bish flawlessly pulls it off.

Xerxes is an early opera. The Largo, though literally about a tree and its shade, is a love song about displaced and hopeless love. It ought to be sung by a castrato male. Sometimes it is sung today by a female soprano. But probably a more historically accurate sound can be gotten by a countertenor, as in the performance below.

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