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Francesco BARSANTI & George Frideric HANDEL: Music for winds & strings

[I] "Edinburgh 1742 - Barsanti & Handel"
Emilie Renard, mezzo-sopranoa
Ensemble Marsyas
Dir: Peter Whelan
rec: Sept 5 - 9, 2016, Edinburgh, North Leith Parish Church
Linn Records - CKD 567 (© 2017) (67'54")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Busk yebcd [1]; Concerto grosso in F, op. 3,1 [2]; Concerto grosso in F, op. 3,2 [2]; Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,3 [2]; Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,4 [2]; Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,5 [2]; Logan Waterbcd [1]; Lochaberbcd [1]; The birks of Invermaybcd [1]; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Alcina, opera (1735) (HWV 34) (Sta nell'Ircana pietrosa tana)a; Concerto in F (HWV 331); March in F 'March in Ptolemy' (HWV 346)

Sources: Francesco Barsanti, [1] A Collection of Old Scots Tunes, 1742; [2] Concerti grossi op. 3, 1742

Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphrys, oboe; Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn; Carles Cristobal, Peter Whelan, bassoon; Cecilia Bernardini, Colin Scobieb, Sijie Chen, Jacek Kurzydlo, Sarah Bevan-Baker, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Rebecca Wexler, viola; Jonathan Manson, Gultim Choic, cello; Carina Cosgrave, double bass Elizabeth Kenny, archlute, guitar; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichordd; Alan Emslie, timpani

[II] George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerti a due cori
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Gottfried von der Goltz, Petra Müllejans
rec: Oct 10 - 12, 2014, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 905272 (© 2018) (48'54")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto a due cori in F (HWV 333); Concerto a due cori in F (HWV 334); Concerto a due cori in B flat (HWV 332)

Until the 'classical orchestra' was born, during the 1740s, the orchestra consisted of strings and a basso continuo group. Wind instruments were no fixed part of the orchestra, and could be added when they were needed. The exception was the French opera orchestra, which included a pair of oboes. However, these were not given separate parts, but played colla parte with the strings. There are some reports about the participation of wind instruments in performances of Corelli's concerti grossi in Rome, but these seem to have been exceptions.

The concerto grosso was one of the main forms of orchestral music in the baroque era. Corelli's concerti grossi were among the first specimens of this genre, and these were considered the model by later composers, among them not only many Italians, such as Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Antonio Locatelli, but also by Handel. He published two sets of concerti grossi, as his Op. 3 and Op. 6 respectively.

The first set is notable for the scoring, which includes two oboes and a bassoon. Several concertos also include parts for a recorder or a transverse flute. With this scoring Handel deviated from the Corellian model. The present disc focuses on the concerti grossi which Handel's Italian colleague Francesco Barsanti published as his Op. 3. These are even more remarkable than Handel's Op. 3

Barsanti was one of the many Italian performing musicians and composers who moved to London to look for employment. He arrived there in 1714, together with his friend Francesco Geminiani; both were from Lucca. For a number of years he played the flute and the oboe in the orchestra of the Italian opera. In 1735 he married a woman from Scotland. He developed a special liking for Scottish tunes which he arranged or incorporated into his compositions. He found aristocratic patrons in Scotland and composed some of his best music, his Concerti grossi op. 3 and his Overtures op. 4. In 1743 he returned to London where he started to work as a viola player. From that time he gave up writing any original compositions. When he died in 1772 he was poor and almost completely forgotten.

The Concerti grossi op. 3 are remarkable for two reasons. First of all, the set comprises ten concertos, whereas collections of sonatas or concertos usually came in sets of six or twelve. Even more remarkable is their scoring. The collection is divided into two halves, of five concertos each. To the usual strings and basso continuo Barsanti adds parts for two (French) horns and timpani in the first five concertos, and for two oboes, trumpet and timpani in the remaining five.

The inclusion of timpani was unheard of. Barsanti's concerti grossi are the first ever with parts for timpani. The participation of horns and trumpet in concerti grossi was also not very common, but their taking part in the orchestra had some precedents, for instance in Handel's Water Music. Even so, there was something special about the horn. It was particularly associated with hunting, and it often appeared in compositions connected to hunting, such as some concertos and orchestral overtures by Telemann. In operas it was used as an obbligato instruments in arias which refer to hunting, such as 'Sta nell'Ircana pietrosa tana' from Handel's Alcina, included in the present programme. Its first section says: "In her rocky Hyrcanian lair lurks an angry tigress, unsure whether to run or await the hunter". Even more famous is the aria 'Va tacito e nascosto' from Giulio Cesare ("The wise hunter seeking prey goes silently and stealthily").

Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes, comes up with some additional information about the role of the horn in society. "In the eighteenth century they graduated, so to speak, from the forest to the house, the street, and the waterway. A pair of horn-playing servants was a desirable accoutrement for any nobleman or rich merchant. These would announce arrivals and departures, lead processions along the streets, provide music for banquets or ceremonies, and supply 'water music' for aquatic outings. Among these horn-players of the servant class (some of whom played alongside, or even themselves became, professionals), black musicians, many of them former house-slaves in America or the Caribbean, were especially prominent and widely esteemed for their expertise in this domain." He then points out that the horn became so popular in England that amateurs of all classes took up the instrument. Among them were also members of the Edinburgh Musical Society, to which Barsanti was closely connected. This undoubtedly explains why Barsanti included two horns in half of his concerti grossi op. 3.

The popularity of the horn is probably also the reason that Handel arranged to movements in D from his Water Music as a Concerto in F for two horns, strings and bc. The fact that the original parts for trumpets were omitted allowed the transposition to F major. The scoring is not the only difference; there are also some melodic adaptations.

I already mentioned Barsanti's liking of Scottish tunes. This is documented here with four settings of such tunes for a melody instrument and basso continuo. Here the violin is chosen, but flute and oboe are also viable options; the tunes can also be sung.

This disc is a most interesting document, not only for its presentation of the horn in orchestral music of the first half of the 18th century, but also because it sheds light on a composer who is a rather unknown quantity. His extant oeuvre is not that large, but definitely deserves more attention. I hope that the remaining concertos from the Op. 3 will also be recorded by the Ensemble Marsyas, which delivers impressive performances of the music selected for this disc. Especially the players of the natural horns deserve the highest praise for their efforts.

It makes sense to include here also a review of a recording of the three Concerti a due cori by Handel, as in them wind instruments, including horns, play a major part. They date from 1747 and 1748, and were played during performances of oratorios. Handel explored here the popularity of his oratorios by arranging instrumental sections and choruses for an orchestra of winds, strings and basso continuo. In the Concerto in B flat, for instance, he included the chorus 'And the glory of the Lord' from Messiah. The Concerto in F (HWV 333) was played during a performance of Alexander Balus in 1748. The overture is an arrangement of the chorus 'Jehovah is crowned' from Esther; Handel also includes the chorus 'Lift up your heads' from Messiah. During the interval of a performance of Judas Maccabaeus in April 1747 the Concerto in F (HWV 334) was played. Here Handel makes use of music from his opera Partenope.

Why chose Handel to compose pieces for two orchestras? Simon Heighes, in his liner-notes to the Harmonia mundi disc, states: "After the crushing of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and the subsequent disbanding of many military bands, there was a glut of oboe, bassoon and horn players on the market. Handel took full advantage, re-employing surplus guardsmen to form two cori or 'wind choirs', which he used to create colourful new orchestral effects alongside the strings. In spirit, too, Handel's three rumbustious Concerti a due cori perfectly complemented the grand, triumphant atmosphere of the oratorios they partnered - Handel at his noisy best, perfectly gauging the public's mood for rousing and uplifting music."

In this spirit the Freiburger Barockorchester have opted for a large line-up, with - in addition to the four oboes, two bassoons and four horns, required by Handel - sixteen violins, four violas, four cellos, two violones, two lutes and two harpsichords, divided over the two 'choirs'. Together they produce a splendid and often quite spectacular performance, which fully reflects the splendour Handel aimed at. The short playing time is a bit disappointing, but no Handel lover should miss this recording, which may well one of the best performances of these pieces in the catalogue to date.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Emile Renard
Freiburger Barockorchester

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