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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
CD 1
Oboe Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, HWV 301 [8:13]
Oboe Concerto No. 2a in B flat major, HWV 302a [8:35]
Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G minor, HWV 387 [10:12]
Largo in F major (Fragment from Op. 3 No. 2b) [2:25]
Alcina: Overture; Il Ballo; Act III Music; Dream Music [23:58]
Ariodante : Overture; Sinfonia pastorale; Rondeau I, Rondeau II, Finale [17:33]
Il pastor fido : Pour les Chasseurs I & II [5 :47]
CD 2
Berenice: Overture, Menuet, Gigue [9:36]
Solomon: Sinfonia - Arrival of the Queen of Sheba [3:08]
Concerto a due cori No. 1, HWV 332 [15:27]
Concerto a due cori No. 2, HWV 333 [15:31]
Concerto a due cori No. 3, HWV 334 [16;12]
Overture in D, HWV 337/339 [5:38]
Concerto grosso in C, HWV 318 'Alexander's Feast' [12:59]
Roger Lord (oboe); Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner.
rec. March 1964 (Berenice), April 1965 (Oboe concertos, Largo), August 1971 (Solomon), December 1979 (Ariodante, Il pastor fido), December 1971 (Alcina), January 1979 (remainder). ADD.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 1388 [74:54+79:10]

 

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According to the publicity material, “of immense interest to the collector will be Marriner's Argo disc of 'ballet music' - overtures and orchestral interludes from Alcina, Ariodante and Il pastor fido, appearing complete for the first time on CD.” Well, yes, up to a point, though the operative word is 'complete': some of these items have already appeared on an earlier Australian Eloquence CD in company with Gluck's Don Juan ballet music (476 244-0). My colleague Stephen Vasta didn't like either the performance or the recording of the Gluck but was more impressed with the Handel: in fact, he thought “it might be worth waiting for Decca to reissue ZRG 686, which also included the overture and ballet music from Alcina, in its entirety. It'd be worth the wait, especially if filled out with, say, Marriner's Royal Fireworks Music.” (See review). Well, he hasn't got all of that wish, but a substantial part of it has been fulfilled.

Paul Shoemaker was also impressed with the performances and recording of the Handel items on that earlier Eloquence CD - see review - as also was Göran Forsling - see review.

GF's one reservation was that “Period instruments might have given some added edge to the performances but for fine middle of the road performances on modern instruments this is hard to beat.” Right on both counts; I'll return to this point in considering the performances of the Concerti a due cori on this new 2-disc reissue.

The ballet music from ZRG686 concludes CD1 (tracks 14-21). When that Argo LP first appeared in 1972, and again when it was reissued in 1980, it received almost universal praise, which it still deserves. I wasn't at all troubled by the ornamentation and double-dotting which received some criticisms then - they really aren't obtrusive and, in any case, the style of Handel's ballet music ultimately stems from that of the French composers of the previous century. The lightness of touch which was praised then is something we have come to take for granted even more in later versions, as on a mid-price Warner CD of much the same repertoire (Alcina, Terpsichore and Il pastor fido) with The English Baroque Soloists and John Eliot Gardiner. Some dealers still have those versions of the ballet music on a single mid-price CD (2564 603352); otherwise it comes as part of two apparently identical but differently numbered super-bargain 6-CD packages (2564 696208 and 2564 698383, both with L'Allegro, etc.) If I express a slight preference for those EBS recordings, it's because the original instruments just tilt the balance. I have fewer reservations than Johan van Veen expressed in his review of this Gardiner CD, except to point out that a playing time of 47 minutes is rather mean. If you can't find the single disc, it can be downloaded for £3 from warner.freshdigital.co.uk.

The earliest items on the Eloquence reissue, the Oboe concertos and the Berenice and Solomon items, appeared in 1965 on ZRG5442 to well-nigh rapturous welcome. The ASMF was then at the cutting edge of presenting baroque music, Handel in particular, without the ultra-seriousness which characterised earlier performances. This stylish version of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba still holds its own and even now there isn't a great deal of competition for the Oboe concertos - the versions on Naxos 8.553430 from Anthony Camden/Northern Sinfonia/Nicholas Ward and Regis RRC1106, from Sarah Francis/London Harpsichord Ensemble, are the most easily accessible and inexpensive.

These early ASMF performances seem a little less special now - even just a little square, especially by comparison with some recent accounts by Italian ensembles which have rather divided critical opinion - but they are still very well worth hearing. When, in 1988, Decca assembled a programme entitled A Baroque Weekend, they turned to the ASMF performances of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Oboe Concerto No.3 for the central portion of that CD (417 688-2, reissued as The Best of Baroque, Eloquence 461 139-2). Having said that the ASMF sound less enthralling now, I must admit that, after trying out their Handel on that earlier disc, I played it through to the end to hear the two Vivaldi performances which conclude it. How about an ASMF Vivaldi set now, Eloquence, to satisfy those who have enjoyed your Best of Baroque and the selection from the ASMF's Op.3, L'estro armonico (467 432-2, Nos. 1-3,6, 8, 10-12) and wish to explore Vivaldi further?

There is a recommendable period-performance recording of two of the Concerti a due cori, nos. 2 and 3, from the English Concert/Trevor Pinnock on mid-price Archiv Masters 447 2802, available for around £8 and also from passionato.com as a good-quality 320k mp3 download. Those Pinnock performances are coupled with Simon Preston's versions of the Coronation Anthems, which, highly recommendable as they are, may involve duplication with, for example, the splendid recent version by The Sixteen on Coro (COR16066), my Download of the Month in my April, 2009 Roundup.

These Concerti a due cori are highly enjoyable, even if they do involve the recycling of a good deal of familiar material, such as Lift up your heads, O ye gates, from Messiah - but what superb recycling it is. If you don't know them, you ought to repair the omission. The Marriner reissue will give you a very good idea of their quality, but I think the Pinnock versions make them sparkle just that little more. Then there's the excitement of the English Concert's natural horns, like cornering just slightly too fast - will they make it? (They do.) I don't want to make Marriner sound four-square - his tempi are very similar to Pinnock's - but it's worth the duplication for the little extra that the Archiv CD or download brings.

After all, you can have the 2-CD Eloquence set and the Archiv together for less than £14. All three discs are well filled, with over 72 minutes on the Archiv reissue and even more on each of the Eloquence CDs. In fact, you'll need both: only the Eloquence set includes the first Concerto a due cori, with its bouncy version of And the glory of the Lord from Messiah (tr.4) I can't imagine even Pinnock doing this better than Marriner and the ASMF do here.

The second CD is rounded off with very good performances of the Overture in D and the Concerto Grosso in C, HWV318, known as Alexander's Feast because of its employment as interval music for that oratorio. The original-instrument version of this concerto by Simon Standage and Collegium Musicum 90 on Chandos CHAN0622, coupled with excellent versions of the Concerti Grossi, Op.6/10-12, is a little more sprightly, though there isn't much in it. I hope to look at the Standage Op.6 set in a forthcoming Download Roundup; he shaves 9 seconds off Marriner's time for the opening Allegro, but I defy anyone to find the latter sluggish or unstylish.

As my colleagues have indicated in the case of those items which appeared in tandem with Gluck, the Argo/Decca recordings throughout belie their age apart from a little tubbiness in the bass - the more sensitive of my systems emphasises this more than the other. Raymond Tuttle's notes are brief but informative, though they are silent about the two works which conclude CD2, and the whole set is presented as attractively as is usual with Eloquence. I can't imagine anyone being seriously disappointed with this reissue.

Brian Wilson 

 


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