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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Six concerti for organ and orchestra, opus 4.
Number one in g minor [19:24]
Number two inB-flat [9:45]
Number three in g minor [10:19]
Number four in F [14:07]
Number five in F [8:18]
Number six in B-flat [12:31]
Ulrik Spang-Hanssen, organ
Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra
Douglas Bostock, conductor
Recorded in September, 2002 in the church of St. Wenceslas, Landskroun, East Bohemia
CLASSICO Classcd451 DDD [73:25]


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Handel’s concertos for organ and orchestra first came to use as incidental music between the acts of oratorios. The audiences of Handel’s day must have had either a huge appetite for music, or not much better to do with their time. Imagine if you will a performance of a work the length of Messiah, which if done in toto can last nearly two and a half hours. Add to that a concerto of between nine and fifteen minutes in length between each of the three sections and you have a production of Wagnerian proportions. Nonetheless, these utterly charming and captivating scores have survived as music in their own right, and have seen in recent years their fair share of recorded performances.

If one were to categorize this performance by Ulrick Spang-Hanssen and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, one would have to conclude that this is the way indeed that things should be done, and all of the other fussy, whiny period instrument groups should head up and take note. After several attempts, I can simply find no flaw with this disc other than there are a few typos in the booklet, and I had to add up the total time to include it in this review.

This performance is far from "authentic," but then again, the purists get it wrong too by attempting to play this music with only one to a part in the strings, making it sound as if it were intended for the drawing room and not the grand theatre. This modest style may work for Bach, who had limited resources of which he often complained, but the master theater maker Handel had no fewer than forty musicians at his disposal. And if accounts are correct, he needed that many to be heard over the notoriously unruly crowds in the opera house. If you think that cell phones are rude, how about blatant raucous cat calling and unabashed conversations while you are trying to sing an opera?

These performances do not resort to bringing in the Berlin Philharmonic, rather, they are played with a relatively small compliment of modern instruments, which as explained in the program note, was designed to best fit the organ and the space of the recording more than any attempt at an exact replica of a Handelian performance.

And what performances these are. They simply sparkle with verve and energy, and the playing is so musical and meticulous that it comes across as utterly effortless. The organ of the Deanery at St. Wenceslas’ church is a gem. Robust but not overbearing, Mr. Spang- Hanssen is a splendid player and uses perfect registrations. To add even more delight to the already outstanding partnership between soloist and orchestra, Antonio Piricone’s harpsichord playing is the perfect icing on an already delicious cake. Douglas Bostock is dead on in his choice of tempi. We never feel rushed, nor does the orchestra ever take on the rather breathless feel that many a baroque orchestra generates when they attempt to play this music at breakneck speed.

To begin with, the music itself is the apex of elegance. When brought to life at the hands of such thoughtful musicians, you have more than an hour of riveting music making. This is my first encounter with these artists and this label. The appearance of the disc hints at a modest private operation, and the occasional typo in the notes gives hints that this is a small enterprise. No matter. The essay in the booklet is interesting and lengthy, giving us all sorts of insight into the performers’ ideas and intentions. The performance choices are fully documented and justified by the thorough historical background given in the essay. Sound quality is of the first order. This is one of the most natural sounding discs I have heard in some time.

Without fail, every lover of elegant and vibrant music making should own this disc. The more we hear in the future from these artists the better. This is a world-class production worthy of the widest audience possible. Tutti bravi!

Kevin Sutton

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