Handel Concerti grossi, Op. 6
No record company has been quite as discerning as Decca in its releases of Handel's great set of Concerti grossi, Op. 6. First there was the Boyd Neel Orchestra—why on earth has this seminal recording still not been reissued?—in the mid-1950s (7/55); then, in the mid-1960s, came a Decca version with Sir Neville Marriner (10/68—nla), full of vitality and insight and sharing with the older Boyd Neel performances the inimitable keyboard continuo playing of the late Thurston Dart. Now, a quarter of a century later, comes Decca's first recording on period instruments, performed by the American-based orchestra of the Handel and Haydn Society directed by Christopher Hogwood. The Handel and Haydn Society was founded in Boston in 1815 and is America's oldest performing arts organization. Since Hogwood became its Artistic Director in 1986 the orchestra has devoted itself entirely to playing on period instruments.
The Op. 6 are essentially string concertos and, though the composer later added woodwind instruments to four of them, they are all played with pure string texture here, according to Handel's original publication of 1740. Hogwood is a proven Handelian and his earlier recording with this band of the six Concertos, Op. 3, is but one disc which provides the evidence (L'Oiseau-Lyre, 6/89). Having enjoyed that release so much I was at first afraid that Op. 6, a much more challenging project, might not live up to its predecessor. I need not have worried, for this playing is full of sparkle and ready wit. Hogwood judges tempos effectively and, by means of phrasing and thoughtful punctuation, breathes life into the music. I did not always find the tutti playing either as clean or as incisive as it might have been—the Andante of the Seventh Concerto and the Allemande of the Eighth are cases in point—but the concertos are greatly enhanced by the experienced concertino group. Handel, like Corelli, wrote his concertinos for two violins and a cello. The first violin part is shared by Stanley Ritchie and Daniel Stepner, the second, played in all but one concerto, by Linda Quan. The cellist is Myron Lutzke.
The movements which perhaps fare best of all are the many contrapuntally-based ones, the first Allegro of the Fourth Concerto and the robust mischievous fugue of the Seventh are particularly happy examples of what I mean, and the dances where Hogwood almost invariably sets an ideal tempo; here the captivating Menuet of the Fifth Concerto and the robust, infectious Hornpipe of the Seventh provide excellent instances. Some readers may feel the need for more weight in the opening Larghetto e staccato of the Fifth and the Ouverture of the Tenth, a shade more grandeur, perhaps; yet I found myself revelling in the caprice of this performance, Hogwood underlining the airiness and ebullience of Handel's style. However, there is an intimate, sometimes darker side to these concertos, too, and this is not lost on Hogwood who captures the mildly elegiac atmosphere of the Musette of the Sixth, the tender lyricism to the hushed Largo e piano of the Fourth and serene Largo of the Twelfth.
All in all, then, this is a fine achievement. Sometimes the playing lacks finesse but the spirit of the performance is captivating and the music, it hardly need be said, is of the highest quality throughout. Clean recorded sound and an interesting essay by Donald Burrows complete the picture.'