It was Handel’s very own recital room at the Handel House Museum, Brook Street, where Alina Ratowska’s London concert took place. A resonant nostalgia filled the room: here Handel himself rehearsed his musicians and singers between 1723 and 1759. Ratowska, born in Gdynia, Poland (1976), gave us here an eclectic Baroque programme on the harpsichord with works ranging from that of Georg Böhm (1661-1733) to Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667).
Alina is the originator and director of the Goldberg Festival in Gdansk, and a lecturer at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw. Awarded the diploma of Schola Cantorum Basilensis in 2002 at the Academy of Early Music in Basel, she subsequently graduated from the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw. Going on to become member of the Goldberg Baroque Ensemble, she later saw her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations nominated for Poland’s prestigious FRYDERYK Awards.
The Handel House Harpsichord is a stunning specimen, made by Bruce Kennedy in 1998 and based on the 1624 ‘Ruckers’ harpsichord Handel was known to have had at this house. The ornate paintings on the lid, together with the Baroque portraits hung on the walls, make for a very special recital space. Ratowska, renowned for her harpsichord playing, opened the concert with Georg Böhm’s short and bright Preludium in F major followed by his Suites no.4 and no.5. It was a well-chosen opening: the swift, up-beat passages contrasted well with the more melodious, legato sections, instantly getting the concert off to a good start. Following this was a superbly nuanced performance of Böhm’s Preludium in G minor – with its strict, ominous pulse – followed by his Chaconne in G major: a jovial, spritely ending to the set.
After this came Suite No.3 in C major by John Adam Reincken (1623-1722), one of the most important German composers of the 17th century and a major influence on Johann Sebastian Bach. Here, Alina took full advantage of the harpsichord’s capabilities and varied playing on the upper and lower keyboards as well as using the hand stops to control the tone of sound – in the Sarabande each note sounded short and plucked, rather like pizzicato on a string instrument.
We then progressed – aptly enough – onto Suite No.2 in C major by Reincken’s friend Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637/1639-1707), a Danish-German organist, today considered one of the key German composers of the mid-Baroque. The suite enhanced Alina’s control over the harpsichord with beautiful lyrical melodies alternating between the two hands, and complemented throughout with tasteful, stylistic ornamentation.
The highlight of the evening was the last two works by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667): his Partita in A minor, and Tombeau in C minor. The Partita‘s a beautiful piece, haunting and delicate, with an improvisatory feel. It includes “Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la melancholi” which translates as “written for London to overcome weary melancholy”, a title which seems apt even today. The Tombeau in C minor finished off the concert with a heroic and virtuosic prowess.
Recognising the hours of practice that go into such intricate pieces, you can only applaud Alina, and give thanks to the British Harpsichord Society for the existence of such events promoting the enjoyment, study and ownership of the instrument – a fantastic chance to present Baroque music to a wider audience. Ratkowska’s experience and knowledge of the music world make her stand out as a true exponent of both the harpsichord and the Baroque period itself – which in turn makes for a trusting and inspired audience.
Alina Ratkowska’s concert took place at the Handel House Museum on13th October 2015. The event was supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.