Handel’s Concerti Grossi

0 of 5 stars

6 Concerti Grossi, Op.3
12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6

Handel and Haydn Society
Christopher Hogwood

Recorded in March 1988 (Op.3), March 1991 (Op.6/1-6) and May 1992 (Op.6/7-12) at the Methuen Memorial Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: January 2006
AV 2065 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 38 minutes

In order to capitalise on the success of his sometimes-shady publishing ventures, featuring works by Corelli (the famous Opus 6 Concerti Grossi) and Geminiani, London music publisher John Walsh unscrupulously cobbled together another set of concertos, this time from the music of Handel, and published it, in 1734, without the composer’s consent, as Handel’s Opus 3. The same composer’s Opus 6 set then appeared in 1740, also published by Walsh, but this time with Handel’s direct involvement: although drawing on pre-existing music, it is astonishing that the 12 concertos took only a month to compose. The Opus 6 epithet was also a deliberate ploy on Handel’s part to cash in on the classic status of Corelli’s 1714 set, and was a great success with London’s concert-going public.

The present recordings have been issued under license from Decca; the Opus 3 has been out of the catalogue until now and the Opus 6 is still available in the ‘Double Decca’ series. So it’s nice to have them all together and so beautifully packaged. The performances still sound remarkably fresh; possessing as they do an exuberance and clarity that has yet to be surpassed – despite many excellent successors.

This is largely down to both Hogwood’s and the Handel and Haydn Society’s belief in the music’s being, in part, a natural outcome of the nature of the instruments. This goes beyond mere antiquarianism to the artisan’s being true to the nature of the materials. The violins with their gut strings and shorter fingerboards, the winds with their lighter construction, narrower bores and more reliance on embouchure: these factors shaped the composition of the music and in turn shape the interpretation.

So we get an enormous variety of tone colour, even from note to note, from the so-called ‘unreliability’ of tone production on early instruments; we get the swift dancing and characteristic phrasing that comes with using shorter bows and winds that offer less resistance to breath; we get a more balanced contrast between the concertino group and the orchestra as a whole; the plucked strings of the harpsichord, too, are fully integrated into the texture and sound less like an add-on.

You have only to compare these recordings with those that are based on an entirely different conception of string-playing, like Menuhin’s with the Bath Festival Orchestra for EMI from the early ‘60s. To take one aspect only: the phrasing here is a direct outcome of using longer bows and the resultant tendency to rely more on slurring, resulting in smoother, less variegated articulation – in keeping with the aesthetics of the time, to be sure, and in many ways highly attractive, but it really stems from a different tradition whose terms of reference were more restricted than by those tackling this repertoire today. And yet I recall hearing an amateur orchestra perform Bach’s violin concertos only a few years ago and thinking I had been whisked forty years back in time! Perhaps those musicians need a corrective such as is supplied by this excellent, and most welcome, reissue.

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