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Concert reviews

Handel & Corelli
La Divina Armonia/Lorenzo Ghielmi, organ
concert: March 10, 2016, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in c minor, op. 6,3; Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,9; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 7,1 (HWV 306); Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 7,3 (HWV 308); Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 7,6 (HWV 311); Overture Ottone (HWV 15)

How often does one get the opportunity to hear organ concertos live? I don't mean organ recitals - performances of music for organ solo. I mean concertos for organ and orchestra. Not very often, is my experience. One of the reasons is obvious: the lack of appropriate instruments. Some concert halls have an organ, such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. But such instruments are mostly only appropriate for repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries, and certainly not for the organ concertos by George Frideric Handel. These were the main works in a concert by the Italian ensemble La Divina Armonia, directed by Lorenzo Ghielmi who played the solo parts himself.

Hertz, the chamber music hall of TivoliVredenburg where this concert took place, has no organ and there is no plan to build one. There are plans to build an organ in the large hall and this should be an instrument which is suitable for baroque music. If these plans materialize we probably will hear organ concertos more often, and on an instrument which may be a little closer to the organ Handel himself played. If such an instrument is not available it is usually a chamber organ which is used, the same kind of instrument also used for the performance of the basso continuo. Ghielmi's organ was slightly larger than most continuo organs; it even had a pedal which he used in the Concerto in B flat, op. 7,1 which was performed during the first half. It was the longest of the three concertos and it includes two movements with the indication organo ad libitum. This means that here the soloist has the opportunity to improvise. We can only guess what Handel would have made of such opportunities: he was known as a brilliant improviser. In the programme notes we read that it is the challenge for the interpreter to find a balance between creativity and respect for the composer. Ghielmi wants to stay as close to the style of Handel as possible. That is very respectable and a token of his artistic sincerity. However, in this concerto I found him too modest. His improvisations were nice but rather short, hardly more than a kind of cadenzas. I had expected a little more. It was only in the Concerto in B flat, op. 7,6 that he used the indication organo ad libitum to improvise a whole movement. His improvisation - partly prepared - was stylistically convincing and that made it all the more regrettable that he didn't make more of the other ad libitum movements.

However, there was plenty improvisation in the way he interpreted the written-out organ parts. His ornamentation was varied, stylish and well-balanced, avoiding the exaggerations which one encounters in performances by some Italian performers and ensembles. The dramatic aspects - never absent in any music by Handel - were convincingly conveyed by Ghielmi and his ensemble. This was partly realized by pronounced differences in tempo; some movements were played pretty fast but thanks to the excellent articulation the musical discourse always remained clear. The dynamic accents resulted in the rhythmic pulse coming off nicely which highlighted the dance-like character of many movements.

That was also the case in the two concerti grossi by Corelli, for instance in the allemanda and corrente from the Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,9, two of the most beautiful movements of the entire set. Improvisation played a major role here as well: Stefano Barneschi, the ensemble's first violin - an engaging player who keeps the ensemble going -, several times linked successive movements by short improvised cadenzas. There was also quite some ornamentation in the concertino, more than I have heard in some other performances. Especially interesting was the participation of two oboes and bassoon. Corelli's concerti grossi are scored for strings and bc but performances in different scorings from the composer's own time are documented. The Italian conductor Federico Maria Sardelli once recorded the concerti grossi with strings and wind, including trumpets. When I heard them I found them rather hard to swallow. The addition of oboes and bassoon, either playing colla parte with the strings or in alternation with them, seems a better option. In the former case it lent some additional colour to the strings, in the latter it created a kind of dialogue between two groups within the ensemble. La Divina Armonia has some fine wind players in its ranks who showed their skills in Corelli as well as in Handel.

The enthusiastic reception of the audience was well deserved and was rewarded by the ensemble with the andante from Handel's organ concerto in g minor, op. 4,1. It was the end of a compelling concert by one of Italy's finest ensembles.

Johan van Veen ( 2016)

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