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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerti grossi Op. 3 & Op. 6

[I] Concerti grossi Op. 3
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Georg Kallweit
rec: May 2019, Berlin, Nikodemuskirche
Pentatone - PTC 5186 776 (© 2020) (54'11")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,1 (HWV 312); Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 3,2 (HWV 313); Concerto grosso in G, op. 3,3 (HWV 314); Concerto grosso in F, op. 3,4 (HWV 315); Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 3,5 (HWV 316); Concerto grosso in D, op. 3,6 (HWV 317)

Anna Fusek, recorder, violin; Karin Gemeinhardt, recorder, bassoon; Christoph Huntgeburth, transverse flute; Xenia Löffler, Michael Bosch, oboe; Györgyi Farkas, bassoon; Georg Kallweit, Yves Ytier, Barbara Halfter, Uta Peters, Kerstin Erben, Dörte Wetzel, Rahel Mai, Edburg Forck, Thomas Graewe, violin; Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer, Anja-Regine Graewel, Stephan Sieben, viola; Jan Freiheit, Antje Geusen, Barbara Kernig, cello; Walter Rumer, double bass; Michael Freimuth, lute; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord; Clemens Flick, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Concerti grossi Op. 6 (7-12)"
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Bernhard Forck
rec: Feb 2019, Berlin, Nikodemuskirche
Pentatone - PTC 5186 738 (© 2020) (80'29")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto grosso in B flat, op. 6,7 (HWV 325); Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,8 (HWV 326); Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,9 (HWV 327); Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 6,10 (HWV 328); Concerto grosso in A, op. 3,11 (HWV 329); Concerto grosso in b minor, op. 3,12 (HWV 330)

Bernhard Forck, Emmanuelle Bernard, Gudrun Engelhardt, Kerstin Erben, Uta Peters, Dörte Wetzel, Edburg Forck, Thomas Graewe, Gabriele Steinfeld, violin; Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer, Anja-Regine Graewel, Stephan Sieben, viola; Katharina Litschig, Antje Geusen, cello; Walter Rumer, double bass; Miguel Rincón Rodriguez, lute; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord


One of the main genres of instrumental music in the baroque era was the concerto grosso. Arcangelo Corelli was once considered its inventor, but that is contradicted by the facts. It came into existence at several places in Italy in the last three decades of the 17th century. However, Rome was the main centre of composing such works, and there can be little doubt that Corelli's concerti grossi had a huge influence on other composers in Italy and elsewhere.

Outside Italy, there was no part of Europe where Italian music was as popular as in England. Since the publication of Corelli's music, it was seized by a real Corellimania, which gradually turned into a passion for all sorts of Italian music. As a result, England - and in particular London - was the place to be for Italian musicians and composers looking for employment. The fact that London was also a centre of music printing further contributed to the dissemination of music in the Italian style for all sorts of scorings, from concerti grossi for strings to sonatas for recorder.

George Frideric Handel must have been aware of the huge popularity of Italian music, and he himself, although German by birth, had very much adopted that same style in his vocal and instrumental music. Among all the foreign composers who had settled in England, he was by far the most successful and the most influential. This was explored by the publisher John Walsh, who printed several editions of chamber music, almost certainly without Handel's consent. That makes it rather difficult to decide what exactly was in line with Handel's intentions. The same is the case with the first set of concerti grossi, which came from the press in 1734 as his Op. 3. It is a collection of different pieces, written in different periods of Handel's career, and mostly used before in another context, mainly as overtures to vocal music, in particular operas. This explains their rather unconventional and different form.

The number of movements varies from two to five. The former is the case in the Concerto No. 6; Suzanne Aspden, in her liner-notes, writes that its unusual form "suggests Walsh's desperate attempt to construct a final 'concerto' to make a set of six (...)". This was the custom of the time: most collections of sonatas or concertos comprised six or twelve pieces. These concertos are also unusual in that they don't adhere to the basic structure of the concerto grosso as laid down by Corelli. In some concertos there is hardly any sign of the separation of the concertino and the ripieno, and most concertos include passages for solo instruments, which show the influence of the Vivaldian concerto form. Lastly, whereas concerti grossi were usually scored for strings and basso continuo (as were those by Corelli), in these concertos other instruments also play their part, especially oboes, but also bassoons, a transverse flute (Concerto No. 3) and a pair of recorders (Concerto No. 1). The first edition was riddled with errors, and soon a revised edition was produced. Maybe Handel had at least some influence on that edition after all.

There was much need for orchestral music. The German critic and composer Johann Mattheson wrote: "In Italy and France there is something to be heard and learned; in England something to be earned". This explains the large number of editions of instrumental music produced at the time. Such music was played in the theatre, as were Handel's concerti grossi and later his organ concertos, but also in public concerts, mostly by professional players, and in gatherings of musical societies, which were usually a mixture of professional players and amateurs. Whereas most public concerts took place in London, musical societies existed across the country. And as Italian music and in particular concerti grossi were hugely popular, there was every reason for Handel to produce another set of such works. In 1739 he composed the concerti grossi which were then printed by John Walsh junior. At about the same time, Handel performed these concertos as part of his oratorio performances. Two of the concertos are also known as organ concertos - a genre for which Handel became especially famous, as he could show his skills in playing the organ and the art of improvisation.

In comparison with the Concerti grossi op. 3, most movements are original. That is to say: the London audiences may not have heard most of the music in these concertos. Scholars have discovered that in several movements, Handel was inspired by other composers, for instance Domenico Scarlatti and Gottlieb Muffat in their respective keyboard works. The fact that they were specifically written for publication explains the stronger amount of coherence in this set. Most concertos comprise four or five movements; only two have four. The scoring is always the same: strings and basso continuo, although in some of his performances, Handel added oboes and bassoon. It inspired the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin to record four of the first six of this set with additional winds. They stay much closer to Corelli's model than the Op. 3 concertos.

Overall, I was quite happy with the recording of the first half of the Op. 6. In that case, the addition of winds in four of the concertos made it a meaningful alternative to existing recordings. That is not the case here, as they are all performed with strings alone. However, even in this line-up this recording is able to compete with what is on the market. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin lives up here to its reputation for producing bold performances full of dramatic and dynamic contrast. This is very much a German style of playing, which does not work that well in earlier English music (Purcell, for instance), but seems appropriate here, especially as these concertos were either conceived for theatrical performance or at least inspired by it. Moreover, Handel was a man of the theatre by nature, and these performances pay tribute to that, for instance in the choice of tempi and the exploration of effects included in these concertos. I also appreciate the addition of ornamentation in solo episodes, even the rather short ones.

Those who have purchased the recording of the first half of the Op. 6 will not hesitate to add the second volume to their collection. They will certainly also enjoy the Op. 3. Even if you have one or several recordings of Handel's concerti grossi in your collection, these performances by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are well worth being investigated.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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