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Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti Grossi Op.6 (1739)
CD 1
No.1 in G major, HWV319 [11:15]; No.2 in F major, HWV320 [11:49]; No.3 in E minor, HWV321 [11:36]; No.4 in A minor, HWV322 [11:28]; No.5 in D major, HWV323 [14:50]
CD 2
No.6 in G minor, HWV324 [15:16]; No.7 in B flat major, HWV325 [13:36]; No.8 in C minor, HWV326 [15:05]; No.9 in F major, HWV327 [12:38]; No.10 in D minor, HWV329 [13:54]
CD 3
No.11 in A major, HWV329 [16:29]; No.12 in B minor, HWV330 [11:39]
Arte dei Suonatori/Martin Gester
rec. July, November 2007, Radio Hall, Wroclaw, Poland
BIS BISSACD1705/06 [3 CDs: 62:32 + 72:03 + 29:04]

 

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I very much liked the recordings of these pieces with Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman on Telarc, to the extent of splashing out on the other volume in their two disc edition. Had I known my silent prayers would be answered by being sent this new set of Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op.6 I might not have been quite so precipitate, but I haven’t regretted completing the Telarc set, thus far.

Wondering why Martin Gester’s recordings require 3 discs rather than two, it is soon quite clear that all of the timings of every movement are longer in the Bis set. Some of this is due to a more expansive feel for line, a willingness to linger over pauses and allow the gorgeous sonorities of Arte dei Suonatori’s excellent musicians free rein within the pleasantly resonant acoustic in which they find themselves. Indeed, the ‘Radio Hall’ location may not sound very promising, but if anyone were to tell you the setting was some beautiful 18th century church you would believe them immediately. I took one extreme example, the first movement of the Concerto Grossop Op.6 No.8, as this is 6:26 in the Bis recording to 2:32 on Telarc. As you might expect, Pearlman’s tempo is a good deal swifter, and while he observes the first repeat the second is missed out. There are arguments on both sides, and in live performances I’ve often found myself willing the conductor not to turn back a whole wodge of pages so we have to go through many minutes of music for a second time. Here, not only does Martin Gester make the music seem like an entirely different piece, but I would happily sit through any amount of repeats with this kind of playing. There is some variation of course; the theorbo continuo having the chance to extemporise under the strings a little more second time around, though by the time the massed violins get going there precious little else you can hear. There are far more layers going on in the Bis recording however, and more transparent movements like the following Grave have great depth, harpsichord and lute providing a sparkling bed over which the strings can soar and sigh.

Martin Gester’s choice of tempi may be broader than some, but none of them are in any way controversial, and while there is a nice spontaneous feel to the playing there are no over-extended and self-indulgent improvisations. While I still quite like the Boston Baroque recording, this new one from Bis wins on every level. Staying with the No.8 concerto, the Boston players sound flat and dull when compared with Gerster’s heartrending harmonic emphases in the Adagio, and the dancing rhythms in the Siciliano bounce with elegant grace, where from Boston they are rather stretched and lacking in articulation. Their final Allegro has plenty of punch and drive, but Gester’s tempo is a good deal faster, generating more contrast and excitement.

I’ve only dealt with one concerto so far, but what is true for one remains the case for the rest. There are some differences in interpretation as well, but these are more a case of swings and roundabouts – the organ notes held down in the opening of No.9 with Gester for instance, given separated articulation with Pearlman; that kind of thing. The Arte dei Suonatori certainly has the more ‘authentic’ sound, with a previously mentioned rich continuo which would be as much at home in a church cantata by J.S. Bach as in a secular entertainment such as these concerti. The string sound is also sharper and clearer, with that early music ‘bite’ we like to hear these days. The recording is also superb – very dynamic, and marvellous enough in stereo. The SACD effect reveals even more subtlety, and allows you to don the music like a favourite old coat – one which you thought you’d lost but turned out to have been well looked after, dry cleaned in fact, by the posh restaurant where you last saw it. There is a slight rumble in the acoustic, which pretty much vanishes as the music kicks in and is in no way disturbing – just that the background silence is not quite as inky black as our digital-tuned ears have more often than not been lead to expect.

I could bore on about the delicate little syncopations which grace the sheer energy of the Allegro e forte second movement of No.1, the understatedly moving grandeur of the opening Andante larghetto of No.2, the graceful ‘messa di voce’ inflections which give gentle power to both of the slow movements in No.4, or all of those noble dances that make you want to advance, recede and spin in sociable synchronisation with a dozen of your neighbours. I just have to admit it, this is the best set of Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op.6 I know; Hogwood and Harnoncourt included. With the added benefit of SACD spaciousness it’s what any self-respecting purveyor of classy classics would call ‘a winner’. 

As mentioned before, this set is spread of the three discs rather than two. This however is not a serious issue, as Bis are offering this set as a ‘3 discs for the price of 2’ offer, which has to be something of a bargain with music making and recording of this quality. Presentation is no slouch either, though the promisingly academic thickness of the nicely written and detailed notes booklet turns out more the result of their having been translated into German, French and Polish. All of the favourite highlights and best known movements sing and dance across your speakers with glorious vitality, through you will almost certainly find yourself responding with equal and perhaps even more delight to some of the less famous parts of this set of baroque masterpieces. Don’t accept second best, sir; insist on Gester!

Dominy Clements

 

 


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