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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 1759)
Concerti Grossi Op. 3 HWV 312-317 (1734): no. 1 [8:00]; no. 2 [11:52]; no. 3 [7:41]; no. 4 [11:24]; no. 5 [9:20]; no. 6 [7:18]
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. MCO, Hilversum, Netherlands, 23-25 September 2004. DDD. SACD

Handel's Op. 3 Concerti Grossi are quite well served on disc, although not as well as his later Op. 6 set. Among the discs already in the catalogue, this new release from Challenge Classics emerges as one of the best of the available period ensemble performances.

De Vriend, from his violin, leads lithe and limber accounts of these charming concerti. Tempi are well judged, though not overly quick, and rhythms are strongly pointed. The playing of Combattimento Consort Amsterdam is also very assured it is a long time since I have heard such precise tuning and unanimity of ensemble. De Vriend has a silvery, sometimes thin tone which almost makes one wish for a little sinful vibrato in places, but this is no real cause for concern. There is a real feeling of musical conversation in these performances. The interaction of oboe, bassoon and violin in fourth movement of the second concerto is a case in point. I could recite further felicities of this disc, but the playing throughout is consistently excellent. The ornamentation employed by the ensemble is restrained and tasteful.

Similarly, the sound quality of this recording is fabulous. I do not have the necessary equipment to enjoy the full benefits of SACD sound, but the stereo recording is very impressive. The perspective is not so much front row seating as rostrum the listener stands where Combattimento Consort Amsterdam's conductor would, if they had one. Each instrumental line emerges with perfect clarity. The balance is superb and the acoustic warm. No complaints.

Well, one complaint. A minor one, and very much a personal one. As the intelligent liner notes disclose, Handel wrote these delightful pieces to keep his coffers full between the decline in the popularity of his operas and the explosion of his oratorios. They are full of attractive music, most of which Handel pilfered from his own operas (number 4 is an exception to this). This is light-hearted fare, which benefits from an unbuttoned approach. De Vriend and Co. tend take it a little too seriously. They could afford to let go in the allegros, and smile more in the andantes. Instead they deliver earnest, tasteful performances that do not disappoint, but do not thrill either.

If you are looking for an immaculately played period ensemble recording of these delightful Concerti Grossi in excellent sound, you are unlikely to do much better than this one. Not exciting, perhaps, but very satisfying.

Tim Perry



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