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Concerti grossi from England

[I] Charles AVISON: "Concerti grossi after Scarlatti"
Concerto Köln
Dir: Mayumi Hirasaki
rec: April 23 - 27, 2015, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Berlin Classics - 0300702BC (© 2015) (82'13")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto No. 3 in d minor; Concerto No. 4 in a minor; Concerto No. 5 in d minor; Concerto No. 6 in D; Concerto No. 9 in C; Concerto No. 11 in G; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in D (K 29)a

Mayumi Hirasaki, Markus Hoffmann, Hedeig van der Linde, Chiharu Abe, Jörg Buschhaus, Antje Engel, Stephan Sänger, Frauke Heiwolt, violin; Aino Hildebrandt, Gabrielle Kankachian, viola; Werner Matzke, Jan Kunkel, cello; Jean-Michel Forest, double bass; Lorenzo Alpert, bassoon; Michael Freimuth, lute; Gerald Hambitzer, harpsichord (soloa)

[II] George Frideric HANDEL, Pieter HELLENDAAL: "Grand Concertos"
Archetti Baroque String Ensemble
Dir: Carla Moore, John Dornenburg
rec: Sept 26 - 29, 2012, Belvedere, Ca., St Stephen's Church
Centaur - CRC 3368 (© 2014) (71'58")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Handel
Scores Hellendaal

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,5 (HWV 323); Concerto grosso in A, op. 6,11 (HWV 329); Pieter HELLENDAAL (1721-1799): Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 3,1; Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3,2; Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,5

Carla Moore, Jolie Einem, David Wilson, Alicia Yang, violin; Anthony Martin, viola; Tanya Tomkins, cello; John Dornenburg, double bass; Davitt Moroney, harpsichord, organ

In the early decades of the 18th century England came under the spell of the Italian style. In particular the music of Arcangelo Corelli was enthusiastically received, and his sonatas and concertos were played by music societies of amateurs across the country. This explains the influx of many composers from Italy, who found a receptive soil for their compositions. One of them was Francesco Geminiani, who took advantage of the Corelli-mania in England by arranging the sonatas Op. 5 of his teacher as concerti grossi.

Domenico Scarlatti never visited England, but his keyboard sonatas found a wide dissemination. The only collection which he published himself, the Essercizi per gravicembalo, came from the press in London in 1738/39. One of his strongest admirers was Thomas Roseingrave who published a number of sonatas in 1739. However, most of his sonatas circulated in manuscript. It is impossible to say how many of them came into the hands of Charles Avison, who arranged some of Scarlatti's sonatas as concerti grossi.

Avison was born in 1709 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north of England, where he received his first musical training from his father, who was a city wait. From 1724 to 1735 he stayed in London to further his musical education, and then returned to Newcastle, where he stayed the rest of his life and played an important role in musical life. During his time in London he met Francesco Geminiani, who made a lasting impression on Avison. He showed his admiration by arranging Geminiani's Sonatas Op. 1 for violin and bc as concerti grossi, just as Geminiani had done with Corelli's Sonatas Op. 1. Domenico Scarlatti was also highly admired by Avison. He decided to transcribe a number of the latter's harpsichord sonatas for strings and bc. In 1744 he published Twelve Concerto's in Seven Parts ... Done from Two Books of Lessons for the Harpsicord Composed by Sig. Domenico Scarlatti. One year before he had already published one concerto and announced the publication of the complete set if there were at least 100 subscriptions. The fact that there were no fewer than 151 subscribers attests to the popularity of concerti grossi and of Domenico Scarlatti in particular.

Every movement is based on one particular sonata. Most of them have been identified. Avison's main source was the edition of Roseingrave, and this included only two sonatas in a slow movement. This could explain that the source of some slow movements in these concertos have not been found. Avison may have had access to sonatas which have not come down to us, and he also turned some fast sonatas into slow movements. However, there have also been suggestions that some slow movements may be from Avison's own pen. He not merely transcribed Scarlatti's sonatas. Obviously the keyboard works had to be adapted to a different medium. He sometimes omitted passages and reduced the number of repeats. Now and then the harmony is changed and contrapuntal lines are added.

Concerto Köln's performances are energetic and dynamic. The brilliant character of Scarlatti's originals comes well off here. However, sometimes I felt that the dynamic accents are a bit too strong. I like that in Italian and German music, but I feel that it is less appropriate in English music. And, after all, this is English music: Italian music in an English framework. Considering the connection between music and language and the differences between English on the one hand and German and Italian on the other, I suspect that English music requires less marked accents and a style of playing which is a little more fluent.

It can hardly surprise that Avison chose the form of the concerto grosso for his transcriptions of Scarlatti's sonatas. This was one of the most popular forms of instrumental music, and - as in the cases of the solo and the trio sonata - it was Corelli who set the standard. With his Concerti grossi op. 6, which were published posthumously in 1714 in Amsterdam, he strongly influenced younger generations of composers. As late as 1789 Charles Burney wrote that the "concertos of Corelli seem to have withstood all the attacks of time and fashion with more firmness than any other of his works".

One of the composers who was influenced by Corelli's concerti grossi was George Frideric Handel. He had met Corelli personally during his stay in Rome. The Roman master was the leader of the orchestra, which was involved in the performance of Handel's oratorio La Resurrezione. Considering the popularity of Corelli's concerti grossi it was profitable for any composer to add compositions of his own pen to the genre. Geminiani did so by publishing his Op. 3 in 1732, Handel composed two sets of concerti grossi: six concertos op. 3 came from the press in 1734, whereas in 1740 he published a set of twelve concerti grossi as his Op. 6. Whereas the former set included obbligato wind parts, the second set was for strings alone; at a later date Handel added oboe parts to some concertos. As in Corelli's concerti grossi, the concertino is in the form of a trio sonata, and scored for two violins and cello; the tutti are for four-part strings and bc. Handel didn't follow a standard pattern: there is quite some variety in the number and character of movements. The concerti grossi are not purely Italian in style; Handel also included French elements, for instance dotted rhythms in the ouverture, which opens the Concerto grosso in D, op. 6,5. It was this style which gave Corelli so many problems during the rehearsals of La Resurrezione, as he was not familiar with it.

Handel, on his turn, influenced generations of composers in England. One of them was Pieter Hellendaal, who was from the Netherlands. He was born in Rotterdam and moved to Amsterdam with his family at the age of nine. He was educated as a violinist, and was then sent to Italy to study with Giuseppe Tartini. He returned in 1743 at the latest and started to play in public; he also received a privilege for publishing his compositions. This resulted in the printing of two sets with sonatas for violin and bc. From 1749 to 1751 he studied at Leyden University and tried to make a living by giving concerts. Apparently there were not that many opportunities there and in other towns in the neighbourhood. It made him move to England in 1751. In the next years he played a considerable role in musical life in London, until 1762 when he moved to Cambridge. Here he performed as a violinist and was active as a teacher, and in 1762 he was appointed organist of Pembroke Hall Chapel. His Six Grand Concertos were published in London around 1758; they bear witness to the continuing popularity of the concerto grosso in England, at a time when at the continent it had been replaced by the solo concerto.

In his oeuvre Hellendaal was clearly inspired by Handel, and that includes his concerti grossi. However, to Handel's concertino he added a viola part. It "does not play an independent role throughout, but it does have considerable independent material, particularly in slow movements, and provides a rich four-part texture with the solo violins and cello in many places", David Wilson writes in the liner-notes to the Centaur disc. Hellendaal was not the first to give the viola a part in the concertino. He could have taken the idea from Geminiani, and Wilson also mentions the concerti by Avison. He also refers to Hellendaal's skills as a violinist to explain the greater virtuosity required in his concerti grossi.

The combination of Handel and Hellendaal is a useful one. Even so, I would have liked a disc entirely devoted to Hellendaal, as Handel's concerti grossi are very well-known and Hellendaal is badly represented on disc. The only complete recording of the Concerti grossi op. 3 dates from 1991 (Roy Goodman, directing The European Community Baroque Orchestra; Channel Classics). That disc may not be available anymore; at least it is not mentioned by ArkivMusic. But such a disc would probably not sell that well. Let's enjoy what we have here, because the Archetti Baroque String Ensemble delivers good performances, in which the qualities of the concertos by Handel and Hellendaal is convincingly displayed. The line-up is very small; this is certainly a legitimate option, but I would have liked a somewhat larger ensemble, in which the contrast between concertino and ripieno would have come off more clearly. I am also a little disappointed about the dry acoustic and the miking, which is a little too close for comfort.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Archetti Baroque String Ensemble
Concerto Köln

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