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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1729)
Concerti Grossi Op.3 HWV312-7
Concerto No.1 in B flat HWV312 [8:55]
Concerto No.2 in B flat HWV313 [12:08]
Concerto No.3 in G HWV314 [8:03]
Concerto No.4 in F HWV315 [13:33]
Concerto No.‘4b’ in F [12:20]
Concerto No.5 in D minor HWV316 [9:59]
Concerto No.6 in D HWV317/337 [7:09]
Organ Concerto Movement in D minor, HWV317/ii [3:29]
The Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman
rec. 15-17 June 1992. location unspecified. DDD.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55075 [76:37]




My personal recommendation of this disc stems from the fact that I bought it myself. Looking to weed out an overgrown collection of some of its lesser glories and replace them with better versions, I decided that my CD of these Concerti Grossi performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard (Philips Baroque Classics, subsequently a 2-CD Duo with the Organ Concerti Op.4 and deleted in both formats) was a candidate. I know that Leppard’s performances have many supporters and I have certainly always found them serviceable, but there are better versions out there, especially as, other things being equal, I prefer ‘period’ instrument performances.


The recent version by the Academy of Ancient Music under their new director Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi hybrid SACD HMU907415) certainly seemed a prime candidate, having received the highest praise in various quarters. Otherwise there are strong contenders from Harnoncourt (Warner Elatus) and Gardiner (Warner Apex) and decent versions from Creswick (on modern instruments, Naxos) and de Vriend (Challenge Classics – "not exciting but very satisfying" according to Tim Perry on this site, which makes it sound like the Leppard which I was replacing!) Finally there was the Handel and Haydn Society/Hogwood version (3 CDs, Avie AV2065, containing Op.3 and Op.6), a mid-price recoupling of Decca originals, which Robert Hugill praised highly on this website. I might very well have gone for the Avie had I not already owned these versions of the Op.6 Concerti, so that I would be buying three CDs to obtain one. Apart from that, I fully endorse Robert Hugill’s enthusiastic recommendation of the two-thirds of this set which I own and which I have no intention of weeding out.


Why, then, did I not opt for any of the fine versions of Op.3 which I have named above? For the sake of Concerto ‘4b’, almost certainly a spurious work, which the publisher-cum-music-pirate Walsh included in the first printed version of these works and which he subsequently replaced with a genuine Handel work. Scholarly opinion is that ‘4b’ is probably a rag-bag of movements ‘in the Italian style’ from various sources, which would seem to be the end of the matter – except that I rather like it. After all, Handel, like Bach, was not above ‘borrowing’ (not always from himself in Handel’s case) and even the ‘genuine’ Concerto No.3 may have been assembled by Walsh rather than Handel, from a Chandos Anthem and Te Deum.


Leppard includes ‘4b’ on the CD that I was replacing, therefore, if possible, the replacement should also include it. Unfortunately, Egarr does not, nor, I believe, do Harnoncourt or Gardiner; in any case, Harnoncourt can sometimes be more than a little eccentric. Goodman does include it: he likes it ("a delightful work … deserving much greater recognition") and his performance makes a very good case for it – perhaps even for its being the highlight of these concertos.


Harmonia Mundi offer a 37-second snippet from the finale of Concerto No.1 in the Egarr version on their website – just enough to confirm that these are lively performances: hardly enough to form a firm opinion, yet suggesting that I may be tempted to buy this version at some future date when I have committed to SACD: [http://www.harmoniamundi.com/uk/album_fiche.php?album_id=1155] The Hyperion website [http://hyperion-records.co.uk/details/55075.asp] offers a much more substantial RealPlayer sample, Goodman’s rendition of the first movement of the genuine Concerto No.4, a long overture-movement in three sections, (Largo) – Allegro – (Largo or Lentement), lasting 6:20 in this performance which observes the repeats – as, presumably, does Egarr, who takes 6:33 according to the Harmonia Mundi website. Leppard does not take the marked repeats for the central Allegro and Lentement section, thus making it a far less substantial movement: A-A-B-C instead of A-A-B-C-B-C. This concerto, probably written as an interlude for a performance of Amadigi, is scored for two oboes, two violins, viola, bassoon and continuo. (Op.3 is still sometimes known, erroneously, as ‘Handel’s oboe concertos’ because of the prominent parts for that instrument.)


In the first movement the first-violin line and the first-oboe part are identical, as are the second-violin and second-oboe parts. (Scores of all the Op.3 Concertos, albeit in elderly editions and not including ‘4b’, are available at http://www.icking-music-archive.org/ByComposer/Handel.php) In Leppard’s version of this movement the oboes are almost swamped by the string sound, and, though the tempi are lively enough, the whole effect is bottom-heavy, with the harpsichord coming through as an occasional tinkle. With Goodman the overall sound is much lighter, the oboes can be clearly differentiated from the violins, though they play the same notes, and the harpsichord is integrated within the continuo – just audible but never too prominent.


The Philips booklet notes describe this movement as "ingenious" and "witty" – epithets which apply much more to Goodman’s version than to Leppard’s. Though there is little difference in tempi between the two in the other movements of this concerto – Leppard is actually faster in places – Goodman’s performances throughout sound lither and livelier and the same is true throughout the remaining concertos.


The playing of the Consort throughout is excellent, with Goodman leading from the violin. The scale of the performances is just right – small-scale enough to sound lithe and fresh but weighty enough in the right places, as in the opening four bars of Concerto No.1, scored by Handel for two sets of violins, two violas, two bassoons and continuo. This opening sounds just a little plodding from Leppard but just right from Goodman. I have already referred to the continuo – audibly there but never too prominent. The excellent booklet, with detailed notes by Goodman, lists theorbo (in No.3), harpsichord and organ continuo contributions, all well integrated within the overall sound.


The Op.3 concertos on their own make for a shortish CD; de Vriend’s CD, for example, offers just 55:48. Egarr adds a nine-minute Sonata a 5 HWV288, which brings his version up to a respectable 68:04. Leppard (74:10) rounds his version off with a Concerto Grosso movement in F, thus ending his CD with a largo, which seems a little downbeat.


Goodman offers the best ending of all. The sixth concerto exists only in the form of two fast movements, which Leppard plays as they are, while Egarr bridges these movements with an improvisation. Goodman, who has edited all the concertos for his performances, splices the first movement of the published Concerto No.6 together with an Overture in D (HWV337) from a manuscript in the British Library, to create a three-movement work. The finale, as printed by Walsh, actually the first movement of Handel’s first published Organ Concerto, is then performed as an encore – a lively performance, fully worthy to stand beside my recommended versions of Handel’s Op.4 and Op.7 Organ Concertos (Ton Koopman at budget price on a 2-CD Apex set, 2564 62760-2) to round off a set of lively performances.


The digital recording dates from 1992 – hence the notes refer to the British Museum, rather than the British Library – but is more than suitable for purpose. So, unless you must have surround sound or you disapprove of Concerto ‘4b’ or take issue with Goodman’s edition of these scores, I see little reason not to buy this CD … and it comes at a fraction of the price of the Egarr. Otherwise, for those who want Op.3 and Op.6 together, there is always the Hogwood set.

Brian Wilson



 


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