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William BABELL (c1690 - 1723): Concertos op. 3

Anna Stegmann, recordera
Ensemble Odyssee
Dir: Andrea Friggi

rec: Feb 15 - 17, 2016, Diemen (NL), Schuilkerk De Hoop
Pan Classics - PC 10348 (© 2016) (75'02")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores op. 3

Concerto in D, op. 3,1a; Concerto in D, op. 3,2ah; Concerto in e minor, op. 3,3a; Concerto in A, op. 3,4ah; Concerto in F, op. 3,5abc; Concerto in F, op. 3,6ab; Sinfonia a 7 in Adefg

María Martínez Ayerza, recorderb; Georg Fritz, Yongcheon Shin, oboec; Eva Saladin, Nadine Henrichs, Tomoe Badiarovad, Holly Harmane, violin; David Alonso Molina, violaf; Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Carina Cosgrave, violoneg; Giulio Quinci, theorbo, guitarh; Andrea Friggi, harpsichord

Not long I ago I reviewed a disc with English recorder concertos, performed by Michael Schneider and the Capella Accademia Frankfurt. It included three concertos from the Op. 3 by William Babell. I wrote: "Babell may have acquired a somewhat dubious reputation - the concertos included in the programme are of fine quality." This verdict is confirmed by the present disc which includes the complete Op. 3.

Babell's dubious reputation refers to his arrangements for harpsichord of arias from Handel's operas. Charles Burney, for instance, judged that "Mr Babel … at once gratifies idleness and vanity". Babell received his first music lessons from his father, Charles, who was a bassoonist and played in the Drury Lane Theatre orchestra. He also was educated by Pepusch and, according to Mattheson, Handel. Whether the latter is true is not established, but he certainly had a great admiration for Handel, as his arrangements show. He played an important role at the London music scene. He frequently performed at the harpsichord and seems to have been a violinist in the private band of King George I. He also performed with some other famous artists, like William Corbett and Jacques Paisible. The latter could well have been the soloist in Babell's recorder concertos as he himself was not a recorder player and the solo parts are certainly not easy. At least one performance by Paisible of a concerto by Babell has been documented.

The six Concertos in 7 Parts, op. 3 were published posthumously around 1726. Four of them are for sixth flute, one for two sixth flutes and one for two treble recorders. As the autographs have not been preserved the performers have to rely on the printed edition by John Walsh. This confronts them with several problems, as Andrea Friggi writes in the booklet. The first is that this edition includes seven part books, among them two for ripieno violins. Friggi notes "inconsistent doubling" and calls them "haphazard"; this suggests that these parts, which are only used in the first four concertos, are probably an addition of the publisher and not according to Babell's intentions. Therefore they have been omitted in this recording. One could add that the fact that these concertos don't include a viola part further suggests that they were intended for a line-up with one instrument per part. We have to do here with specimens of the concerto da camera.

Friggi also notes many apparent errors some of which could be easily corrected whereas others are much more problematic. At some moments the violins double the basso continuo; these are ignored in these performances. The Concerto No. 5 causes a special problem in that the violin parts are indicated as being for violin or oboe. This concerto is in D and this means that these parts are uncomfortable for oboes. Therefore this concerto is transposed up a third; in F the oboe parts are idiomatic for the oboe, but as a result the two solo parts cannot be played on sixth flutes - the solo instrument used in the first four concertos - but recorders in F, known as 'common flutes'. Friggi believes that this was the intention of the composer and that Walsh changed this concerto to create a collection of pieces for the same scoring.

Babell's concertos are either in three (No. 1 and No. 4) or four movements. The former are in the usual order of the Vivaldian solo concerto, whereas the latter follow the model of the Corellian sonata da chiesa. One of the most notable pieces is the Concerto No. 2. The opening adagio is for strings alone. The third movement which follows the previous movement attacca, opens with a solo of the recorder and includes an imitation of the nightingale. The Concerto No. 6 includes some remarkable harmonic tension, in particular between the two recorders.

In addition to the six concertos Op. 3 we hear a Sinfonia a 7 in A. It is not mentioned in the work-list in New Grove. It has survived in four different manuscripts which are all preserved in Swedish libraries. It is suggested that they are based on a single copy which may have been brought to Sweden by Johan Helmich Roman who from 1715 to 1721 stayed in London, where he played in the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music under George Frideric Handel as one of the second violinists. It is scored for strings and bc, but the closing vivace includes a solo part for harpsichord. Friggi suggests this could be the very first music in history for solo keyboard and strings. This sinfonia is in five movements. The first is divided into two sections: an ouverture in French style, with its typical dotted rhythms, and a fugal presto.

It was a nice experience to be able to listen to these six concertos and my positive impressions of the concertos I had heard before were fully confirmed. These are very fine pieces for recorder and are well worth to be part of the standard repertoire of recorder players. The German-born Anna Stegmann, who studied in Amsterdam and since 2014 teaches a recorder class at the Royal Academy of Music in London, alongside Pamela Thorby, is an outstanding player who produces a beautiful tone and plays with much imagination and zest. She is accompanied by players who are at the same wavelength and this has resulted in a most captivating disc. The Sinfonia is a good find and receives a splendid performance.

Not only recorder aficionados will enjoy this disc but anyone who likes good music.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Anna Stegmann
Ensemble Odyssee

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