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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Twelve Concerti grossi, Op. 6 (1739) [168:29]
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
rec. Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes, Valladolid, Spain, 14-18 June, 23-30 July 2008. DDD
L’OISEAU LYRE 4780319 [3 CDs: 64:00 + 59:29 + 45:00]


Experience Classicsonline

The outlandish cover turns out to be appropriate to Il Giardino Armonico’s performances. These twelve classic concertos are in danger of breaking down, like IGA’s coach, despite or because of their very familiarity. Even so, a daring, sunny, even irreverent attitude provides fresh insight.

From the opening of Concerto 1 IGA’s approach is clear: brusque, percussive attack with brutal accents from the ripieno (full) strings, allowing the concertino solo violin 1, 2 and cello, in these performances with luscious archlute and tripleharp backing, to be a sunny contrast before the whole introductory movement melts into a delicate close. In the following fresh Allegro gutsy ripieno alternates with dainty concertino, then there’s shimmering interplay in semiquavers between them (CD1 tr. 2 0:45). Particularly attractive in the tuttis is the clarity of the rising theme in 3 layers, the first and second violins exchanging themes on repeat and the violas shining appealingly on the third run through (1:15). Also enjoy the abrupt ending followed by quieter tail, as if manners are suddenly remembered. In the Adagio the soloists’ expressiveness is opulently drawn out, which the tuttis layer over in support, the only snappy outbursts being those marked loud so that, as notably in the coda, passion and reflection are side by side. The next Allegro is bracing and skipping, with a touch of raciness in its spirit, its sunlit layering appreciable and the suave oboes’ doubling of the violin parts enhancing the sense of contentment. The final Allegro offers a crisp contrast of concertino all sweet and ripieno all verve while the interplay between second and first violins (eg. tr. 5 0:28) is a deft delight.

Concerto 2 is quieter with an intensely sweet opening from IGA, the ripieno enlarging the floridity of the concertino. Particularly enjoyable is the interplay of first violin concertino with first violin ripieno an octave lower (tr. 6 from 1:32). A restful becalming is, however, shattered by an attacking, dramatic close. The following Allegro begins with nifty interchange between concertino first and second violins, copied by the ripieno, after which the lower strings relish being put through their paces. IGA make this a bravura display quietening and this time with a soft close. The third movement Largo is vividly characterized, contrasting heavy accents in the ripieno with demure caressing by the concertino, then a melting Larghetto deliciously done, all downy grace. The assurance of the Allegro finale is writ large in IGA’s trenchant articulation of its opening accents but the mild but gleaming rising motifs of the concertino violins are more benignly positive.

In Concerto 3 I compared the 1982 recording by The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock (Archiv 4630942). In the opening movement Pinnock has a more stylish dignity where Antonini is more luxuriant, especially in the soloists’ ornamentation, and has more momentum. However, in the Andante Antonini is more deliberate and dramatic in clarifying the angularity of line where Pinnock produces a more intellectual, flowing argument. The Allegro is jollier and more scintillant from Pinnock. Antonini is spiky: athletic, relentless, a bit grim. Pinnock provides a comely pastoral Polonaise, Antonini’s is more pacy, rugged and rustic with a hurdy-gurdy feel yet tempered by sensitive dynamic contrasts and the delicacy of the passages for soloists, the second violin ever imitating the first, then vice versa next time. Antonini’s Allegro finale is lightly pointed, yet the soft contrasting of soloists and tutti at close quarters has more overt feeling than Pinnock’s more urbane approach.

In Concerto 4 Antonini savours the tender, aria like opening Larghetto with quite full tone which creates a mix of moods, a glowing sonority and articulation yet wan cast from the key of A minor, especially the shaded close. Next he displays a rigorous Spartan fugue with more of those biting accents we’ve met in earlier concertos only to surprise with the contrast of the following soft Largo, balmy and dreamy in its mellow contours. The mood changes again in a racy, robust Allegro finale but that too is attractively tempered by contrasts in dynamic and the relief of concertino passages.           

Brilliance is the word to sum up Antonini’s Concerto 5 with its arresting solo violin call to attention, bristling tutti with demisemiquaver flourishes and the second violins and violas’ jagged echoing imitations of the dotted quaver/semiquaver rhythms cutting across the texture. The Allegro second movement is an incisive fugue with concertino passages providing a little flowing relief. The Presto third movement contrasts shimmering concertino with fiery ripieno punctuation but also dazzling passages shared by all. Next Antonini’s Largo, melodies led by the soloists but confirmed in sunny opulence by all, has a spacious, golden sheen. Then a scampering, frisky Allegro, IGA here like a hunting party in full cry. The closing Minuet has a sedate, regal opening but its second phrase is immediately treated more robustly before in turn IGA’s piquant contrast of the light leaps and showy ornamentation of the second strain, an appropriate emphasis on Handel’s variety of approach, further developed when the melody is joined by a breezy running bass (tr. 24 0:56) and then itself cast within sturdy running quavers (1:50).

In Concerto 6 I compared the 1991 recording by The Handel and Haydn Society directed by Christopher Hogwood (Decca 458 817-2). This begins in stately fashion but the smoothly shaded dynamic contrasts seem relatively polite beside Antonini’s more vivid variation of dynamics and manner, the soft poignancy of the individual grief of the concertino passages shattered by unrestrained outcry as the tuttis cut in dramatically before the final tutti slinks down to a hush. From Antonini the second movement fugue with its clipped entries of theme comes with rigorous clarity and determined articulation. Hogwood is flashingly pacier, timing 1:35 against IGA’s 1:49, but lighter in articulation. The following Musette is presented by Antonini in deep, rich sonority, its drone clearly present, the concertino passages of brighter cast but tutti remaining quite sober so there’s a vividly ambiguous combination of warmth and gravity. Hogwood opts in favour of tender warmth with less density of tone and a slower tempo, timing 5:05 against IGA’s 4:29. This makes the concertino passages more meditative. Antonini’s second section (CD2 tr. 3 1:21) is more tripping with free flowing quavers and oboes to the fore where Hogwood offers indulgent relaxation. IGA’s third section (2:12) is brisker, more pert, semiquavers now dominating, action rather than contemplation where Hogwood is comparatively stiffer and the same applies in the fourth movement Allegro which is particularly Italianate and given a fresh edginess by IGA. The lighter scored fifth movement Allegro, with all violins in unison, is also more imaginatively contrasted by IGA, taken slightly slower with the first strain repeat played by strings only, the second strain given largely over to oboes and bassoons, strings only interjecting where the oboes have brief rests and to create a final tutti phrase.

In Concerto 7 strong initial accents and low register give the opening movement an imposing grandeur, with the echoing by cellos of first violins’ plunging descent and ornamentation (from tr. 6 0:53) memorable. The fugue (tr. 7), whose theme begins with 13 repetitions of the same note around which the developing counterpoint is intertwined, has from Antonini a majestic confidence and clarity. At the close comes 51 seconds of harpsichord interpolation which includes at 3:20 a taster for the opening of Concerto 8. The following Largo floats agreeably, almost suspended in time and space, the emphasis appropriately on expressiveness rather than structure. The Andante IGA begin with an assertive swagger yet the soft delivery of its second phase has a kind of furtive delight and the contrast between loud and soft passages is throughout dramatized. The closing Hornpipe is delivered with tremendous gusto, more like a dashing gallop, you feel as if the musicians are almost airborne.

Concerto 8 here begins fresh and sprightly with string bass insistently echoing the violins’ opening motif and peppery punctuation at phrase ends. Its brief, eloquent Grave starts with a protest leading to expressive concertino then tutti lament. The third movement becomes a flamboyant exchange between concertino and ripieno of its opening waspish figure and second element of even quavers. Then a terse Adagio is a soulful, aria like outpouring, quoting Giulio Cesare. The focus on melody continues with the Siciliana a plaintive tune, tutti respectfully repeating concertino before Antonini reveals their later interchange is more subtle and adroitly applied. The theme then movingly winds down in sotto voce pleading before an austere close. The following Allegro provides an antidote in being all spruceness.

Concerto 9 starts bravely without any melody, rather a gently treading background over which tension and relaxation are juxtaposed. Antonini then makes the following Allegro deliciously crisp in its melodic display as concertino imitates select ripieno phrases and violin solo passages exult in bravura. Next comes more expressive imitation in a stately Larghetto dance which is nevertheless clearly shaped and shows more varied interchange between the two groups. We then get a fugue movement with a racy, bustling theme treated with liveliness and precision by Antonini so you admire the clarity and life of the texture. By contrast there’s an element of ambiguity about the Minuet which is both firm in frame and delicate in hope, especially when it gradually turns from minor to major. IGA make it nimble yet personal and introverted, whereas the closing Gigue is extrovert abandon elatedly led by the concertino first violin as master of ceremonies.

To the Overture which opens Concerto 10 IGA bring a spring, giving it a disciplined yet also dance like quality, the lower strings clearly counterbalancing the violins. The fugue section (CD3, tr. 2) is delivered with even more mettlesome relish with something of a helter-skelter about it. The following Air is boldly proposed but thereafter Antonini finds a more humane, soft response to which the soloists bring an individual witness. Then there are two Allegro movements, the first an exuberant scamper, D minor notwithstanding, the second, stoked by solo passages, sparklingly articulated and of a steely momentum. To finish, suddenly bathed in the sunlight of D major, a cheery tune in quavers deftly presented with jewel like garnishing, harpsichord unusually prominent and excitement mounting as the tune is recast in semiquavers and cascading descents are enjoyed by second and first violins in turn.

The opening of Concerto 11 is breezily treated by IGA with bold tutti staccato yet sunny solo violin passages and contrasting refinement of texture gorgeously displayed plus 45 seconds worth of interpolated solo violin cadenza including another reference to the opening of Concerto 8 (tr. 7 4:14), this a rather hangdog one. Next comes another fugue of vigour and arresting entries all presented with great cogency. The movement which follows is no more than a series of short flourishes but the Andante next sounds like a laid back pastoral before the concertino take wing with individuality and imagination. The concluding Allegro is robust, the concertino here more frisky with some neat, light trickle down imitation from upper to lower parts to savour in turn from concertino to ripieno (e.g. from tr. 11 0:23 and 0:56). I also enjoyed the subtle differences introduced in the repeat of ornamentation, dynamics and articulation, particularly the cheeky introduction by concertino of a pizzicato phrase (5:35) to which the ripieno fully responds.

In Concerto 12 I compared the 1997 recording by The Academy of Ancient Music directed by Andrew Manze (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907228-29). In the opening movement Manze is faster than Antonini, 1:46 against 2:10. This makes him steelier and more severe. Antonini opens with a rhetorical, attention calling tutti but this seems just a façade beyond which is revealed the soloists’ response of more individuality, sensitivity, experience including sorrow which Antonini gives us more space to feel. In the following Allegro Manze is again faster, 2:49 against Antonini’s 3:11, with thereby more headlong verve and excitement but Antonini brings a compensating involvement in his greater clarification of the counterpoise of soloists and tutti, aided by a clearer, less resonant recording, especially the bass. Just listen to those macho basses revelling in their distinctive staccato contributions (from tr. 13 1:02). Now comes the only movement in the set entitled Aria (tr. 14) whose serene simplicity is presented by Antonini as a natural flowing song. Its first variation (1:53, 2:37) is louder and firmer, with a running quavers’ bass, its second (2:15, 3:06) softer and more delicate with the melody encased in running quavers. Manze is slightly more stately, thereby less idyllic and shows less dynamic contrast in the variations. The succeeding Largo Antonini makes a mysterious but rather amorphous miasma whereas the faster Manze, 0:50 against Antonini’s 1:14, goes for a more alert brief interlude of reflection. In the closing Allegro fugue Manze is determined and formal with all elements explicitly laid out, a pristinely intellectual approach, whereas Antonini, like so much of his performance, has a more emotive response and thereby bite and edge which allows him a bristling end to the proceedings.           

This is Handel outside the comfort zone. The vivid, immediate recording adds to this impact. I found it tremendously stimulating and kept thinking this might be how these works were experienced first time round. But it is not often the elegant and generally restrained manner of Pinnock. It probably needs a health warning: cue cover photo.

Michael Greenhalgh



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