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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Six Concerti Grossi Op. 3 (c1715-22)
Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (1739)
Water Music Suites Nos. 1 in F major and 2 in D major (c1715-17 rev 1736)
Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749)
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Iona Brown (all Concerti Grossi) and by Sir Neville Marriner (Water and Fireworks Music)
Recorded 1994
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99986 [5 CDs 271.47]



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This five CD set, originally recorded in 1994 for Hänssler Classics, offers generally good accounts of the Opp. 3 and 6 Concerti Grossi and of the Water and Fireworks music. It’s the third time that the Academy have recorded the Op. 6 set and they still have imaginative and enjoyable things to say even if they are no longer front runners in this repertoire (though amongst "traditional" performances they still hold an honoured place). There is considerable accomplishment in the readings, technical excellence, poise and a genuinely affecting simplicity. So for example one can admire the swaggering vigour of the G major Allegro or the emphatic wandering bass line of that first concerto’s succeeding Adagio. The Academy are also good at pointing up the witty nonchalance of the final Allegro. Their approach to tempo is convincing; things are slightly tighter here than in their earlier traversals – the nice walking tempo of the first movement of No. 2 in F major is a case in point – and the instrumental soloists (such as the violin duettists in the largo of the F major) are splendid. Iona Brown introduces oboes in Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6, something of a departure for the Academy. There can be demerits; I found the Andante of the E minor rather dogged and insufficiently distinguished in terms of tempo and string weight from the following Allegro. I also think that the third movement of No. 4 in A minor insufficiently piano, as marked.

Still these can be counted against other equally notable successes – the brisk decisiveness of the D major’s largo is a real plus though the concluding movement of that Concerto seems too jog trottingly plain. Balance is restored in the Largo affettuoso that opens No. 6 in G minor. Care and attention has been paid to orchestral weight and to the degree of tension and motion necessary to launch it. There is elegance and suavity – not a derogatory word in the context – in the Musette of the same work and a sense elsewhere in the middle concertos of gravity and energy. The cohesion of Brown and the Academy’s view can be demonstrated by the occasionally rather grandiose hornpipe conclusion of No. 7 and the gravity and solemnity of the adagio of No. 8 in C minor. They certainly don’t affect to languish in these works; the larghetto of the F major, No. 9, could easily become an exercise in tonal effulgence but instead is sensitive without sacrificing tempo relations. The overture of the D minor, No. 10, has a strong sense of dynamic variance even though there is something rather too plush to the Largo e staccato of the A major (No. 11); the solo violin in that work’s andante is excellent and there is buoyant certainty in the allegro of No. 12 in B minor. The balance between solo and tutti is good, the playing praiseworthy and if in the end some of the drama of the Op. 6 Concerti may occasionally seem missing the playing lacks nothing in spirit and drive.

The six Op. 3 Concerti replicate many of the virtues of the better known and more extensive set. Tempi are pliant but generally quite propulsive. Energetic and full of colour the violin and oboe (is it Celia Nicklin?) shine out in the Allegro of the B flat minor as does the cello and oboist once again in the beautifully expressive Largo of No. 2. The oboist is especially distinctive with a superb control of the arch of the music and the tonal qualities to match. There are plenty of opportunities for instrumental finesse and colour and the players take them happily; sometimes there are moments of distinct heaviness but the chamber intimacy of much of the music and its parallel impulse to the soloistic suit the Academy well. Therefore we can readily admire the flautist in the opening largo of No. 3 in G major, the strong basses in the Allegro of the same work and – once again – the oboe’s exquisite unraveling of the Andante in the F major.

Which leaves the Water Music and the Fireworks. Broadly traditional, the performances are strong but with forward moving tempi (nothing decisively aggressive). The Academy’s recordings of this literature have kept pace, as it were, with original instruments performances and there’s little difference in tempi between Marriner here and, say, Pinnock. He still imparts distinction to much of the works though his earlier performances have maybe that extra degree of freshness that this present one occasionally lacks.

As a 5 CD set at super budget price this collection has genuine attractions; not least the splendid recording quality and equally excellent orchestral playing. I enjoyed them on their own terms and those are of a traditional orchestra phrasing flexibly and playing with freedom but with acute awareness of the importance of motion in these works. The incisiveness of original instruments and the ancillary technical matters that come with their use (matters of accenting and articulation prominent amongst them) seem not to be so relevant here. This is a generally satisfying and successful traversal and vigorously pleasurable.

Jonathan Woolf



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