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George Frideric HANDEL & Antonio VIVALDI: "Concerti e Arie"


rec: Sept 25 - 28, 2014, Dorneck (SO, CH), Kirche Nuglar-St. Pantaleon
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 186 (© 2015) (71'34")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Babell

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Radamisto (HWV 12a), arr ? (Quando mai, spietate sorte); Rinaldo (HWV 7), arr William BABELL (c1690-1723) (Overture; Lascia ch'io pianga; Venti, turbini, prestate) [1]; Sonata in c minor (HWV 386a); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto in D (RV 92); Concerto in G (RV 101); Concerto in a minor (RV 522) (transp to d minor); Sonata for cello and bc in B flat (RV 45)

Source: [1] William Babell, Suits of the Most Celebrated Lessons, 1717

Juliane Heutjer, recorder; Katharina Heutjer, violin; Jonathan Pesek, cello; Sebastian Wienand, harpsichord
with: Shai Kribus, oboe; Sonoko Asabuki, violin, viola; Katya Polin, viola; Mélanie Flahaut, bassoon; Alexandre Foster, cello; Josep Maria Martí Duran, theorbo

The famous journalist and music historian Charles Burney, never afraid to give a frank opinion, wrote that William Babell "acquired great celebrity by wire-drawing the favourite songs of the opera of Rinaldo, and others of the same period, into showy and brilliant lessons, which by mere rapidity of finger in playing single sounds, without the assistance of taste, expression, harmony or modulation, enabled the performer to astonish ignorance, and acquire the reputation of a great player at a small expence (...). Mr Babel (...) at once gratifies idleness and vanity". Babell may have gone a little overboard in his arranging of Handel's arias, the practice itself was widely spread and goes back to ancient times. In the renaissance the most popular songs of the day appeared in many different shapes, often with additional parts and with ornamentation to what the original composer had written down.

We don't know what Handel thought of Babell's arrangements, but one thing is for sure: he himself was the most prolific arranger of his own oeuvre, reusing and adapting complete pieces or parts of them time and again. He also didn't bother to include pieces by other composers - both of his own time and of previous generations - and adapt them to his own needs. In a time when there was no such thing as copyright there was little that composers could do against others using their music. Moreover, one could also see it as a tribute to the original composer, and there can be little doubt that Babell greatly admired Handel.

There was a time that playing arrangements was not done. The pioneers of historical performance practice were fighting against a widespread practice of ignoring the intentions of the composer. They were interested in what the composers had actually written down. Today, at a time that historical performance practice has fully established itself, interpreters have developed a more differentiated view at the performance practice of the 17th and 18th centuries, and have recognized that many composers were rather practical in their atttitude to the performance of their works. They often suggested alternative scorings on the title pages or in the prefaces of editions of sonatas or suites. They also often arranged their own music for performance under different circumstances. The present disc includes an interesting programme of pieces by two of the most famous composers from the first half of the 18th century: George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. Some of their compositions are performed here in their original form, others are arranged for a different scoring.

The most remarkable part of the programme are the arrangements of arias from Handel operas, mostly from the pen of Babell. This is probably the most 'controversial' aspect of the arrangement practice of the baroque era, especially considering the importance of the text. It is true that in the 18th century the ideals of Giulio Caccini, one of the 'founding fathers' of what we call the 'baroque style', had lost much of their influence. In his view the word always came first, and the role of music was to support the text and the communication of its affetti to the audience. Since the mid-17th century vocal virtuosity and increasingly also vocal stardom had made their appearance at the music scene. In Handel's time many opera arias were also meant - or used by the opera stars of the time - to show off. But the voice was still the king of 'instruments' and vocal music was considered the main form of music. It is just the great popularity of vocal music and in particular of opera which drove someone like Babell to arrange arias for harpsichord. At a time when only the upper echelons of society were able to attend public performances of opera such arrangements brought the best music from the theatre within the reach of a wider circle of music lovers. And those who were lucky enough to attend such performances could now play their favourite items at home, at their own harpsichord, or with friends in ensemble.

The programme opens with one of Babell's arrangements, the overture from Handel's opera Rinaldo. It has four movements and has been arranged here for an instrumental ensemble. It is interesting that Babell's arrangement includes several things which are not in the original score. It is useful to refer here to Babell's transcription of the aria Vo' far guerra from that same opera. It includes harpsichord solos which Handel improvised during the performances. In his arrangement Babell entirely relied on his own memory of Handel's improvisations. The composer was famous for that art, and this arrangement allows us to catch a glimpse of his skills in this department. Therefore these additions to the overture are very interesting in that they give us more information about aspects of performance practice of that time which were seldom written down in detail. Again from Rinaldo is one of Handel's most celebrated arias, Lascia ch'io pianga, which closes the recording. It started its life with a different text in the oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. The solo part is played here at the violin. Material from the same oratorio appears in the Sonata in c minor (HWV 386a): the third movement (andante) is an almost literal transcription of the introduction to an aria in this oratorio. With Venti turbini we return to Rinaldo; the solo part is played here at the recorder. The only other opera from Handel's pen represented here is Radamisto; from this work we hear the aria Quando mai, spietata sorte, played with recorder, violin and bc. The source of this arrangement is not given in the booklet; it is probably made by the ensemble.

The other part of the programme is devoted to Antonio Vivaldi. He was a prolific opera composer but I have never heard of any arrangements of arias from his operas for keyboard of an instrumental ensemble. That is probably due to the fact that in Italy opera played a more important role in music life than in England and opera performances were probably accessible to a wider range of music lovers than in London. Moreover, whereas Handel was one of the main opera composers in London, Vivaldi was one of many in Venice. However, Vivaldi seems also to have been different from someone like Handel: he arranged some of his own music - for instance the concerti da camera for more 'conventional' scorings - but not at the same scale as his colleague. This is probably the reason that most pieces from his pen are played as they were written. The Concerto in G (RV 101) and the Concerto in D (RV 92) are specimens of the genre of the concerto da camera. The former is an example of a concerto which Vivaldi later transcribed himself: originally scored for recorder, oboe, violin, bassoon and bc, he latter arranged it as a concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc to be included as the sixth concerto in his opus 10. The Sonata in B flat (RV 45) is one of a relatively small number of sonatas for cello and bc, written for various performers, either girls from the Ospedale della Pietŕ or some aristocratic amateurs. In particular the second largo is a quite expressive piece.

Vivaldi may have arranged little of his own oeuvre, his music was the subject of arrangements by others. The best-known among them was Johann Sebastian Bach, who arranged a number of instrumental concertos by Vivaldi and other Italian composers for harpsichord or organ. These arrangements reveal another motif for this practice: through transcription one could learn much about the way a piece was written. Bach made these transcriptions at the time he was strongly interested in the Italian concerto form which he then adopted in his own concertos. One of the concertos arranged by Bach is Vivaldi's Concerto in a minor (RV 522) for two violins, strings and bc. This inspired the ensemble to arrange this piece for recorder, violin and bc, but they decided to arrange Vivaldi's original piece rather than to adapt Bach's arrangement.

Vivaldi's music is pretty well-known, Handel's sonata probably a little less so. The main attraction of this disc are the arrangements of material from Handel's operas. If at all they are usually played at the harpsichord, and therefore these arrangements for an instrumental ensemble are a real alternative. They fare pretty well in the scorings on this disc which is also due to the excellent and engaging performances by L'Ornamento. I rated their first disc highly and I am equally happy with the present disc. This is the way to play this kind of music: zestful interpretations but never over the top. This disc offers 70 minutes of high calibre entertainment.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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