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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 (1734) [58.00]
Northern Sinfonia of England/George Malcolm
rec. 1978. ADD
ASV RESONANCE CD RSN 3065 [58.00]


Though the Op. 3 Concerti Grossi are vintage Handel, it is unlikely that he took an active role in their publication. In 1734, when they appeared in print, their publisher, John Walsh, was essentially still producing pirate editions of Handel’s works. During this period, Handel was developing more of an interest in the non-operatic side of his career. His music in this sphere 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 Walsh’s next publication, the Op. 4 Organ Concerti. Handel probably did not choose Walsh as his official publisher; rather he tacitly recognised Walsh’s 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 Op. 3 are rather a mixed bag of pieces from various parts of Handel’s career. Concerto Grosso no. 1 may have been composed in Hanover. Its scoring includes two viola range parts in different clefs, something that links them to works by Venturini, a leading Hanoverian 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 were 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 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 Cannons’ 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 Walsh’s later editions of the concerto include the familiar one. 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 it in 'Ottone'. This confusion of movements on Walsh’s part probably reflects Handel’s 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 first thing that struck me on listening to this re-issue of George Malcolm’s 1978 recording was the rather dated quality of the sound, it does not come over as a 1970s recording. Never having heard the original I am unclear as to whether the original recording or the re-mastering caused this. Granted the performance style is a little old-fashioned, but you cannot reasonably expect modern period-aware performance. Malcolm was in fact very influential in his pioneering of performance of music of this period.
 
The strings are crisp and well articulated, giving the music a lively definition; but they produce a more solid sound than more modern groups. This is mitigated by the superb quality of the oboe playing. In fact, sometimes the oboes seem a little over-spotlit and the strings lack prominence. This might be an attempt at solving the balance problems that can occur when playing this repertoire with a modern orchestra. But in movements like the Largo from the Concerto Grosso no. 2, the solo cellos are given nowhere like enough prominence.
 
More surprisingly, given Malcolm’s expertise as a harpsichordist, the harpsichord sounds a little under-nourished. Again this can often be a problem with modern instruments, though some groups do solve the problem and provide a harpsichord with a strong enough sound.
 
Malcolm’s speeds are on the steady side, though they are certainly not over-slow. The orchestra responds well and in many ways this is an attractive modern instrument account of the pieces. What I miss, though, is the sense of joie de vivre that groups such as Tafelmusik can bring to this repertoire.
 
There are not too many modern instrument performances of these concertos currently in the repertoire and this one has been re-issued at an attractive price. So if in doubt, do try it.
 
Robert Hugill
 

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