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Amazing Confidence

Concertos by Handel -
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'... the playing here is some of the most incisive that I have heard ...'

Handel: Concertos Op 3, 4 and 6. Academy of Ancient Music. Andrew Manze. Richard Egarr. © 1998, 2007, 2008 harmonia mundi

Handel composed his Concerti Grossi Opus 6 in the space of a month during the Autumn of 1739. The choice of a set of twelve concerti grossi for his Opus 6 probably reflected a gesture of respect towards Corelli's influential Concerti Grossi Opus 6. Unusually for Handel's orchestral music the pieces seem to have been composed from scratch and are not re-cyclings of existing earlier movements.

They form a monument which it is almost obligatory for period performance groups to reverence at some point in their history. The English Concert recorded them under Trevor Pinnock in the early 1980s but for some reason the Academy of Ancient Music never recorded them under their founder conductor Christopher Hogwood. Hogwood went on to record them with the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston in 1993.

The Academy of Ancient Music recorded them for harmonia mundi in 1997 under Andrew Manze. Then, under Richard Egarr, they recorded the Concerti Grossi Opus 3 and the Organ Concerti Opus 4. Now all of these have been packaged together in an attractive compact boxed set, complete with informative articles by Manze and Egarr.

For the recording of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi the Academy read from facsimiles of the original parts, as published by John Walsh in 1740. Whether this makes much difference to the sound is an interesting point; it does mean that the group manage to avoid any vagaries introduced by a foreign editorial hand. Manze says in his article that they had a copy of Handel's autograph score for reference.

Whereas the Pinnock and Hogwood versions mentioned above are led by harpsichordists, this version is led by violinist Andrew Manze. This may or may not be significant, but what is true is that the playing here is some of the most incisive that I have heard, and this incisiveness comes from the top. Manze's solo violin opens the proceedings with amazing confidence, vivid rhythm and decisiveness.

Listen -- Handel: 1st Movement (Op 6 No 5)
(CD 1 track 1, 0:03-0:37) © 2008 harmonia mundi

The entire set of twelve concertos is consistent in style, with crisp, lively rhythms and a decisive, incisive almost driven feel. Manze knows when to relax but the overall feel is quite high pressure.

Listen -- Handel: Ouverture (Op 6 No 10)
(CD 1 track 21, 0:02-0:39) © 2008 harmonia mundi

This is very noticeable when you listen to the English Concert and Boston versions. Both these groups produce a broader, generally more relaxed sound. The English Concert number around the same as the Academy of Ancient Music (some fifteen players), but the English Concert's sound is more luxuriant and perhaps plush. The Boston players are similar though their CD gives no clue as to numbers of players. Another difference is that on the English Concert and the Boston discs the concertino group is markedly differentiated from the ripieno. But on the Academy's disc, the sharp playing of the soloists hardly contrasts at all with the ripieno passages.

Listen -- Handel: Hornpipe (Op 6 No 7)
(CD 2 track 5, 0:00-0:39) © 2008 harmonia mundi

On a musicological note, the solo cello on this disc is unsupported by a harpsichord as often happens, instead the solo cellist, David Watkin, realises the part himself via spread chords and arpeggiation, as often happened at the time. A small but notable difference.

When it comes to the earlier Concerti Grossi Opus 3, the recording was made almost ten years later, with the group now led by harpsichordist Richard Egarr. The number of string players is reduced (there are just three first violins to the Opus 6's four) giving the performance a more intimate, chamber feel. The performance style is also more relaxed; crispness and incisiveness play a part but these performances feel less driven than the Opus 6, and far more charming.

Scholars usually decry John Walsh's 1734 edition of these concertos and groups usually play them in modern editions which attempt to retrieve something of Handel's notional original versions. The commonly held belief (strongly articulated by Donald Burrowes in the CD booklet of the Handel and Haydn Society's recording) is that though Walsh had access to Handel's genuine scores, the selection of the movements was very much Walsh's. Egarr disagrees and presents a convincing argument in the CD booklet, but perhaps the finest argument is the performance itself. The players used Walsh's original parts (duly corrected during rehearsals) and have produced a superb account of the pieces.

The feeling of lift in the livelier movements is helped by the inclusion of a guitar as well as a harpsichord in the continuo. But it is in the slower movements that the real magic happens, such as the haunting Largo of the 2nd concerto with a glorious oboe solo.

Listen -- Handel: Largo (Op 3 No 2)
(CD 3 track 5, 0:30-1:14) © 2008 harmonia mundi

The disc finishes with a beautifully poised account of Handel's Sonata a 5 with the solo violin played by Pavlo Beznosiuk. This work dates from 1707, when Handel was in Rome. It is a masterpiece which deserves to be better known, especially in a performance as good as this.

Listen -- Handel: Andante (Sonata a 5)
(CD 3 track 24, 0:24-1:23) © 2008 harmonia mundi

The final disc is devoted to Handel's Organ Concertos Opus 4, the only set which Handel himself edited for publication. The concertos were published in 1738, but Handel seems to have been using organ concertos as an extra draw in his concerts for the previous four or five years. Handel himself was a superb organ player and left himself plenty of scope for improvisation in the organ parts. In the Opus 4 set Handel's solo organ parts at least go some way towards re-creating Handel's playing style. On this disc Richard Egarr takes the solo part and introduces quite a considerable amount of ornamentation, something which he succeeds in making very convincing.

I have a greater problem with the actual sound of the organ. The issue of organs in Handel's concertos is a tricky one; the concertos were written to be performed in a theatre, so the organ involved must have been a relatively moveable one. On this disc Egarr opts for a copy of a mid-size English portative organ of the period. English organ builders of the period general preferred a sweet sound quality rather than the power and brilliance which German builders brought to their organs.

This means that the dynamic contrast between the organ and the instrumental ensemble tends to the extreme.

Listen -- Handel: Larghetto, e staccato (Op 4 No 1)
(CD 4 track 1, 0:04-1:14) © 2008 harmonia mundi

There is much to admire in Egarr's playing, particularly his elegant and inventive ornamentation, but the balance with the orchestra is always delicate, and the organ rarely dominates.

Listen -- Handel: Adagio 1 (Op 4 No 3)
(CD 4 track 9, 0:19-1:16) © 2008 harmonia mundi

The playing is so superb that I wish the balance could have favoured the organ a little more. With an organ this size, you cannot help feeling that Egarr should have opted for a rather smaller instrumental group than the seventeen people he does use. Other CDs of these concertos use suitable period church organs, where the sound is greater and more dominant. Ton Koopman did so on his 1986 recording with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and these remain some of my favourite accounts of these works.

The Academy Of Ancient Music's account of Handel's Opus 6 Concerti Grossi would not be my ideal choice, but taken as part of this four disc set it is more than acceptable. Even if you have these pieces by other ensembles you would do well to consider this well played and attractively priced set.

Copyright © 25 December 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK




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