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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Concerti Grossi Op. 3
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Rec. Casino Zögernitz, Vienna, December 1979, May 1980, January 1981
WARNER ELATUS 2564060328-2 [71.15]


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Is it really almost twenty-five years since this fascinating recording was made? When they were first issued critics rather shook their heads in disapproval. And you must remember that they date from a time when Harnoncourt was certainly not a mainstream performer and performances of Handelís music were nowhere near as general as nowadays. That said, these are never going to be middle of the road or even library recordings. Harnoncourtís searching intelligence is applied to the problems of performing these great works and not once do we find him taking things for granted or considering the music lightly. These are performances that emphasise Handelís greatness by taking him seriously. Not for Harnoncourt the enjoyable bounce along the surface of the works or the cautious blandness that ensures the performance will offend no-one (but wonít inspire anyone either).

Though these works are vintage Handel, it is unlikely that he took an active role in their publication. In 1734, when they were published, their publisher, John Walsh, was essentially still producing pirate editions of Handelís works. But during this period, Handel was developing more of an interest in the non-operatic side of his career. His non-operatic music was gaining wider exposure and Handel (who always had an eye to the main chance) may have seen this as a way of compensating for the problems in his operatic career. He took an active role in Walshís next publication, the Opus 4 Organ Concerti. Handel probably did not choose Walsh as his official publisher; rather he tacitly recognised Walshís pre-eminent position as the most successful pirate music publisher of his works. In Georgian England, copyright protection for composers was rather limited and not very well enforced.

The Concerti Grossi Opus 3 are rather a mixed bag of pieces from various parts of Handelís career. Concerto Grosso no. 1 may have been composed in Hannover. Its scoring includes two viola range parts in different clefs, something that links them to works by Venturini, a leading Hannoverian court musician. The attractive 2nd concerto was probably written for the orchestra at the Haymarket Theatre in 1718/19 and uses movements from one version of the overture to the Brockes Passion. Concertos 3 and 5 are both arranged from music that Handel originally wrote for the anthems for Cannons, the home of the Duke of Chandos (the so-called 'Chandos Anthems'). The first two movements of no. 3 are arranged from this source and the last movement is a based on a keyboard fugue from the same period (in an arrangement that may not even be Handel's). Concerto No. 5 is simply taken bodily from one of the Cannonsí manuscripts (where it is called a sonata). No. 4 was originally the second overture to the opera Amadigi, performed in 1716. In the very first edition of the work, this concerto was replaced by another in the same key, of unknown provenance. This was soon corrected and all Walshís later editions of the concerto include the familiar one. On this disc Harnoncourt gives us both Handelís F major concerto and the F major concerto by an unknown hand. But the most problematic concerto is the last, where a single movement taken from a three movement concerto is attached to a second movement based on an organ concerto. Handel had split the first movement off from its siblings when he used in 'Ottone'. This confusion of movements on Walshís part probably reflects Handelís partial disengagement from the production of the publication. Walsh must have had access to Handel to get the requisite copies of the pieces, but Handel certainly did not oversee the results.

The opening movement of the 1st concerto gives a clear idea of the performance style that Concentus Musicus Wien bring to these works. They play in a brisk, crisp manner given the notes plenty of air. The wind have a fine sense of line and the solo playing is admirable and assured, certainly no sense of the performance on these early instruments being experimental. The strings though, play in a rather accented manner. This détaché sort of playing gives the music the right feel but it imbues it with a sober, seriousness. Later groups, such as Jeanne Lamonís Tafelmusik, play with more of a feeling of bounce which gives the music a sense of joie de vivre that is rather lacking in this Harnoncourt recording. It is instructive to compare the tempi of these recordings with those of Tafelmusik (which is one of the more highly regarded of the recent recordings of the work). Tafelmusikís speeds are generally, but not always, faster than Harnoncourtís. For all its many virtues, this recording does sometimes seem to miss out on the fun element concerned as Harnoncourt is to probe the music deeply whereas Jeanne Lamon (recorded 20 years after this recording) is able to combine serious of purpose with a sense of joy.

Speeds are also not always what one would expect. The Allegro of the 2nd concerto is a rather sedate affair, but this is balance by similarly sedate Menuet and Gavotte. Not that the music is too slow, the wonderful articulation of the Concentus Musicus players ensures that. It is almost as if Harnoncourt is forcing us to listen again to this music which can become too familiar.

But not everything comes off. The hauntingly beautiful Largo of the 2nd concerto has a rather awkward balance between the oboe and the solo cellos. These latter are played lightly in a manner that is almost too discreet. In the 3rd concerto, the solo violin comes rather awry with the fast string crossing passages; a rare moment of error in what is otherwise a fine solo performance. The closing Allegro of this movement is another movement where Harnoncourt tries a slower tempo and this time, the articulation does not seem to work and the movement sounds too deliberate to my ears.

These are not performances for every day or for all ears. Not everything works but one can only applaud Harnoncourtís audacity. I would not want to be without this disc but I would definitely need another performance as well. For preference, Tafelmusik where Jeanne Lamon demonstrates a sense of life-enhancing fun that is missing from Harnoncourtís searching re-examination of Handelís genius.

Robert Hugill

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