Picture it: George Frideric Händel’s music played like jazz, complete with improv, riffs, sparkling syncopations and blisteringly virtuosic licks.
Sound outrageous? Not really, says Christina Pluhar, founder and director of early music ensemble L’arpeggiata.
“For Händel, improvisation was extremely important, and for all the musicians from that time, as well,” Pluhar said in a recent phone interview. “They all were great improvisers.”
That’s the basic rationale behind L’arpeggiata’s most recent recording, Händel Goes Wild, featuring some of Händel’s most famous arias in jazz interpretations rich with revved-up chord changes and exhilarating improv sets. That’s also why, since founding L’arpeggiata in 2000, Pluhar and her collaborators have worked improvisation into their performances.
“Right from the beginning, we wanted to include improvisation in our playing of early music as much as possible,” Pluhar said. “And so we started improvising on different pieces from the 17th century, just to include this aspect more and more in our performance practice.”
This commitment to improvisation has led L’arpeggiata to its now famous jazz-style interpretation of 17th-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal Ohimè, ch’io cado, ohimè, complete with walking bass line, swung rhythms, blue notes and improv sets on period instruments:
“And this carried us on to inviting guests from other musical styles where improvisation is the only thing they do,” Pluhar said. “For example, jazz musicians, or musicians from traditional music — South American music or from Turkey or from Greece or from other musical fields.”
Since Händel and his contemporaries expected an opera singer to improvise ornaments in so-called da capo arias, continuing the tradition of ornamentation in this music, only updated to include the influences of other traditions of improvisation from jazz and world music, transforms performers into creators of a new take on older music.
“One thing is interpreting music that was written by a composer 400 years ago — that means his music goes through the musicians of today to communicate with the audience,” she said. “Whereas a musician that appropriates himself this musical language and makes up his own music today, well, this music becomes really contemporary; it becomes a new creation. You are no longer interpreter — you are a creator of this music then.”
If you were not already familiar with a straight-up legit interpretation of the sinfonia from Händel’s opera Alcina, you might not recognize it as the basis for the opening track from Händel Goes Wild. The slinky jazz clarinet solo right at the beginning sets the tone — and says it all:
Then there’s L’arpeggiata’s interpretation of Händel’s "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," with a saxophone improv set smack in the middle:
In L’arpeggiata’s hands, the aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Händel’s opera Rinaldo begins with an intro improvised on baroque guitar and proceeds to an improv solo on piano, an instrument not yet in existence during Händel’s day:
But is there a point at which work by Händel gets so jazzed up that it really is no longer right to call it a work by Händel anymore?
“Yes, I think we create a new kind of music with our arrangements, absolutely yes,” Pluhar said. “We’re trying to create a new kind of music, inspired by the music of Händel.”