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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti Grossi Opus 3
No 1 in B flat
Allegro, Largo, Allegro
No 2 in B flat
Vivace, Largo, Allegro, Moderato, Allegro
No 3 in G
Largo e staccato, Allegro, Adagio, Allegro
No 4 in F
Andante - Allegro, Andante, Allegro, Minuetto alternativo: Allegro
No 5 in D minor
Largo, Fuga: Allegro, Adagio, Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro
No 6 in D
Vivace, Allegro
Northern Sinfonia/Bradley Creswick (Conductor)
Rec 2nd- 4th May 1995 The Jubilee Theatre, St Nicholas' Hospital, Gosforth, Tyne and Wear
NAXOS 8.553457 [54.03]
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With the established position of period instrument orchestras in the performance of baroque music looking in recent years like a stranglehold it is interesting to see what a modern orchestra like the Northern Sinfonia makes of the Concerti Grossi opus 3 by Handel.

While there is much of beauty in the orchestral sound there are also major issues concerning the performance style that are not dealt with so satisfyingly. Modern orchestras always tend towards the problem of having a sound that is simply too lush to provide the clarity of texture and line demanded by baroque music. The Northern Sinfonia falls straight into this trap, especially in the bass section. While it is true that baroque music must be led, musically, from the basso continuo, that is not the same as simply allowing the bass instruments to dominate the texture. Throughout this recording the basses are over prominent, completely swamping a largely pointless harpsichord. While it cannot be said that they are lugubrious or stolid, there being plenty of agility in the passagework, this is at the expense of a more varied articulation or phrasing. It is this omission that leads to the replacement of "life" with mere "speed". The opening chord of the last movement in the 2nd concerto really sounds more like an ocean liner coming into dock than a continuo section setting the pulse. In the second movement of the same concerto, some very stylish playing by a pair of solo cellos is similarly hampered through being unable to escape from the sounding morass of string sound.

There are aspects of this recording that are more enjoyable. The fugue at the end of the third concerto sets off with a more convincing sense of the dance and some of the oboe solos provide a beauty of line that is undeniably impressive. Throughout these works, Handel provides numerous solo sections for a pair of oboes and these produce some of the highlights of the performance. Personal preference would always be for the more open and buoyant sound of baroque oboes, but the players of the Northern Sinfonia are at least able to play with sprightly variety of articulation and some stylishly individual ornamentation. The real highlight of this whole disc comes in the last track, the 2nd movement of the D major concerto. Here, an unidentified organist produces a masterclass of stylish playing with subtlety and grace as well as a marvelous sense of the imaginative in ornamentation. In comparison with this the stolid mordents of the flute soloist and the ripieno violins sounds as tasteless as the organ sounds brilliant.

Overall there are good illustrations here of why this repertoire has become so much the preserve of the period instrument groups. The lightness and flexibility of baroque strings is always going to have the advantage in this sort of music over long bows and a manner of playing that emphasises the legato over rhythmic. While recordings like that of the English concert under Trevor Pinnock are still in the catalogue, they represent a more enjoyable Handelian experience.

Peter Wells

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