The Gramophone Choice
Concerti grossi, Op 6
Avison Ensemble / Pavlo Beznosiuk vn
Linn CKD362 (159’ · DDD/DSD) Buy from Amazon
The Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble, under the experienced direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, ranks alongside the best for musicianship, taste and style. It’s constituted on a smaller scale than Handel’s orchestra would have been, especially in its lower instruments; also there are no bassoons or lute in the continuo group, and only one harpsichord instead of Handel’s usual two. This is no different to other ‘historically informed’ recordings of Op 6 and need not be considered an obstacle to enjoyment. The optional oboe parts provided by Handel for a few of the concertos are omitted reasonably here.
Beznosiuk is an excellent judge of textures and tempi, and his leadership of the concertino group is authoritative and nuanced. Softly balanced cadences throughout the set are highly effective, and in fast music the interplay between concertino and ripienists is impeccable. The gutsier forthright music is played crisply and sweetly.
The music-making rarely veers towards becoming precious: phrases in the opening Largo of No 7 persistently taper off and diminish the lyrical pull of Handel’s writing, and, in the same concerto, the exclusion of harpsichord in favour of a barely audible organ seems odd considering the trouble Handel took over supplying detailed figured bass; the reduced vivacity also stifles the –wittiness of the concluding Hornpipe. The concluding Gigue of No 9 is controlled and deliberate, where one might have hoped for swagger and panache. However, in the Tenth Concerto, the introspective melancholy of the Lento and the sudden mood-swings of the penultimate Allegro are impressive. No 11 has exuberance in its opening Andante larghetto, e staccato and its finale is thrillingly fleet-footed. The Avison Ensemble’s set may well remain rewarding long after the novelties of more precocious approaches have faded.
Handel Concerti grossi, Op 3
Concerto Copenhagen / Lars Ulrik Mortensen
CPO CPO777 488-2 (59' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
The London music-seller John Walsh published Op 3 in 1734. Experts agree that Walsh probably constructed six concertos from numerous old orchestral compositions (most of them not actually concerti grossi) without Handel’s involvement or authority. Even if overshadowed in critical acclaim by the extraordinary Op 6 collection that Handel composed five years later as a coherent set, Op 3 contains some of his most attractive and diverse orchestral music.
Concerto Copenhagen’s performances ooze abundantly with charm, wisdom and warmth. Passages for recorders, oboes and bassoon during the Largo of Concerto No 1 in B flat are played exquisitely. Courtly rhythms spring disarmingly in the Vivace of Concerto No 2 in B flat; the following Largo is paced a fraction quicker than one often hears it but Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s harpsichord continuo is imaginative in its support for the intimate dialogue between two cellos and Frank de Bruine’s beautifully judged oboe solo. Katy Bircher’s subtle contributions to Concerto No 3 in G major bring to mind the common Baroque opera aria simile of the soft, sweet singing of a nightingale. The Minuet that concludes Concerto No 4 in F major is correctly an elegant dance, the Vivace that begins Concerto No 6 in D major has a surprisingly understated airiness, and Mortensen’s fluent playing of the tricky quick organ solos in the concluding Allegro are articulated flawlessly. Such classy moments make this one of the most endearing artistic interpretations of Op 3 in recent years, which ranks alongside other special recordings such as those by Tafelmusik and the Brandenburg Consort.
Concerti grossi, Opp 3 and 6
Handel and Haydn Society / Christopher Hogwood
Avie AV2065 (3h 38’ · DDD) Recorded 1988-92. Buy from Amazon
The London music publisher John Walsh threw Handel’s Op 3 together in 1734 by organising various single orchestral movements into concertos without the composer’s creative involvement or permission; the result was a hotchpotch. But Op 6 features 12 new concertos that Handel had deliberately composed as a coherent set during September and October 1739. While Op 6 is undeniably Handel’s monumental masterpiece for the orchestra, there are a lot of excellent recordings that do much to promote the variety and charm of Op 3.
For this recording Christopher Hogwood uses a performance edition that takes into account manuscript sources that pre-date Walsh’s compilation. It is good to have the Handel and Haydn Society’s disciplined and lean performances available again thanks to this newly compiled and remastered reissue. The opening of Op 3 No 2 has deliciously sprung rhythms and fine solo concertino playing; the sublime cello duet in the following Largo is sinewy yet tender, its melancholic mood enhanced by the restrained oboe solo. Handel later added oboes and bassoons to some of the Op 6 concertos when they were performed in the theatre but Hogwood prefers Handel’s original scoring for string orchestra throughout.
The Handel and Haydn Society’s alert enthusiasm is tangible throughout these polished and stylish readings, originally recorded by L’Oiseau-Lyre. Hogwood directs with natural sensitivity and his tastefully emphasised suspensions and relaxed shaping of cadences are consistently perfect. The finest Op 6 on disc? Maybe not, but there is ample here to satisfy the fussiest Handelians.
Concerti grossi, Op 3. Sonata a cinque, HWV288
Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr
Harmonia Mundi HMU90 7415 (68’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Richard Egarr suggests that Handel might have had more of a hand in the compilation of Op 3 than hitherto identified. Fresh speculation is a healthy opportunity to reconsider matters but the truly significant aspect of this recording is the new attention brought to Handel’s charming music. It is hard to think of a lovelier moment in all of Handel’s orchestral works than the spellbinding cellos interweaving under a plaintive solo oboe in the Largo of No 2. Likewise, the immense personality of the solo organ runs during the finale of No 6 is a potently precocious display of Handel’s genius at the keyboard. All such moments come across with vitality and passion.
The AAM has never committed Op 3 to disc before: under Egarr they sound as good as ever, perhaps even reinvigorated and a few degrees sparkier. These are for the most part lively performances full of fizzy finesse. There are several fine recordings that find a little more warmth, sentimentality and intimacy in the music, although the energetic brilliance so prominent in the AAM’s crisply athletic playing has its own rewards. The musicians are unanimously immersed in the intricacies of the music, but special mention must be made of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk’s dazzling contribution to the dynamic finale of the ‘Sonata a cinque’ (a sort of violin concerto that Handel presumably composed for Corelli in Rome in about 1707).
Concerti grossi, Op 6
Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini
L’Oiseau-Lyre 478 0319DX3 (168’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
One can overlook a few of Il Giardino Armonico’s eccentricities to listen to some generally intoxicating performances of Handel’s most masterful instrumental compositions. Much of the credit for the intricate passagework and dynamic excitement must be given to fiddler Enrico Onofri, whose playing sparkles with articulate energy. The plunging interplay between concertino and ripieno groups is exhilarating. The Polonaise in No 3 is astonishingly robust, with its droning bass thrashed out; it certainly brings out the daring brilliance of Handel’s musical imagination, though it seems rather short on the pastoral charm that the composer surely intended. The opening Larghetto and Allegro of No 5 possess panache and the opening of No 10 is tautly dramatic, but one misses the airy wit that such music may also convey.
Il Giardino Armonico’s playing is never clumsy but incisive muscular approaches in contrapuntal movements seem overly severe. It is possible to find a more measured elegance and shapely sentimentality in Handel’s music, but there is plenty of highly spiced food for thought served by Il Giardino Armonico.
Concerti grossi, Op 6
Academy of Ancient Music / Andrew Manze vn
Harmonia Mundi HMU90 7228/9 (157' · DDD). Buy from Amazon
With one stride, Harmonia Mundi has stolen a march on Chandos Chaconne’s rival set of Handel’s Op 6 with Simon Standage’s Collegium Musicum 90; by juggling with the order, the 12 concertos have been accommodated on only two CDs. The AAM is on sparkling form, clearly enjoying itself under Andrew Manze’s leadership. Performances are invigoratingly alert, splendidly neat (all those semiquaver figurations absolutely precise) and strongly rhythmical but not inflexible, with much dynamic gradation which ensures that phrases are always tonally alive and sound completely natural (even if more subtly nuanced than Handel’s players ever dreamt of). Manze’s basically light-footed approach is particularly appealing, and he sees to it that inner-part imitations are given their due weight.
Speeds are nearly all fast, occasionally questionably so (though exhilarating), as in the first Allegro of No 1, the big Allegro of No 6 and the Allegro in No 9. But Manze successfully brings out the character of all the movements, and the listener can’t fail to love the vigorous kick of his No 7 hornpipe. He’s mostly sparing in embellishing solo lines except in Nos 6 and 11. Altogether this is an issue of joyous vitality.