George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Concerti Grossi, Op.3
Concerto Grosso in B flat Op.3/2, HWV313 [10:16]
Concerto Grosso in B flat Op.3/1, HWV312 [7:58]
Concerto Grosso in G Op.3/3, HWV314 [6:46]
Concerto Grosso in F Op.3/4, HWV315 [12:02]
Concerto Grosso in D Op.3/6, HWV317 [8:25]
Concerto Grosso in d minor Op.3/5, HWV316 [9:34]
Kammerorchester Basel/Julia Schröder (violin)
rec. Landgasthof Riehen, Switzerland 9-11 and 14 June 2009. DDD.
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 886975 75202 [55:04]

Did we really need a new version of the Handel Op.3 concertos when there are so many recommendable recordings in the catalogue already? The short answer is that, though I mostly enjoyed listening to this DHM recording, I don’t expect to return to it very often. Though it remains far from clear to what extent Handel played a part in the publication of these concertos – it seems likely that he acted only to protect his interests in revising the rag-bag collection of movements which Walsh originally published, removing the spurious No.4 in favour of it genuine counterpart – I actually find myself listening to them more often than to the more coherent Op.6 set, but it won’t be to this new version.

The recordings which I have used in comparison are:

I listened to the Naxos and Challenge Classics versions courtesy of the Naxos Music Library. I also listened to three concertos, Nos. 1, 3 and 6, from: The new recording starts, for me, rather inauspiciously, with an inelegant opening of the second concerto; I’m not sure why the concertos are not performed in the published order, but that’s no great matter. The tempo is fast and the rhythm snatched, as if in competition with recent upbeat performances of Handel by Italian ensembles which seek to reclaim his music as theirs. Such a ‘daring, sunny, even irreverent’ approach, though perilous, seems to work for Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini in the Op.6 Concertos on Oiseau-Lyre 478 0319 – see review: Recording of the Month and Recording of the Year – but it set the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording off on the wrong foot for me.

The movement as a whole is only a little faster than most of the other recordings at 1:46 against Pinnock’s 1:49, Goodman’s 1:52 and Egarr’s 1:55, but the remaining faster movements of this concerto are positively breakneck by comparison, while the Largo is more in line with the consensus. It’s as if we are being deliberately made to feel uneasy which, surely, is not the right effect. Attentive readers of the booklet, however, should have been warned: Christoph Dangel, the cellist, writes that one can take ‘a more playful’ approach to Handel than to Bach: “you can even flirt with the music!” (His exclamation mark.)

The tempi in Concerto No.1, placed second on the new recording, are far less extreme, though once again the manner of the playing seems determined to be hyper-positive. There are a number of photographs of the Kammerorchester Basel in the booklet and the insert. In some they are standing around peacefully, as reflected in the placid largo of Concerto No.1 – it’s actually a few seconds shorter than Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi – but the abiding memory for me is provided by the shots of them dashing towards the camera, one in monochrome and one in colour on the rear of the booklet. Heard immediately after the new version, Egarr’s opening movement of Op.3/1 sounds slightly sedate, but I could willingly trade that for its opposite.

Not all the faster movements are taken at breakneck pace – the final allegro of Op.3/1 exactly matches Trevor Pinnock’s version overall, though it again suffers from that hyper-positive approach. Goodman and Egarr take a few seconds longer than both, which allows the music a little more space to breathe. I’ve made the Hyperion recording my version of choice for the last few years, so there is always a danger that I have become over-familiar with Goodman’s approach, of course, but he seems to me to capture the spirit of the music here and elsewhere at least as well as anyone else.

The short opening movement of Op.3/3, marked largo e staccato, receives a stylish performance – if anything, like Egarr, it’s not staccato enough – but the following allegro is surely too furious again by comparison with (at random) Pinnock and de Vriend; though the latter’s actual tempo is not much slower, the playing is more measured and stylish. De Vriend is also less adventurous if it’s adventure that you want, but I’ll happily stay away from adventure on this occasion.

The opening movement of Op.3/6, marked vivace, should contain an element of magnificence that is fairly well captured by the new recording, but it benefits from the few seconds of extra space which others, Pinnock especially, give it. Creswick is actually faster than Schröder here, but his performance is more measured: for all that I prefer period instruments in Handel, I enjoyed that Naxos recording with the Northern Sinfonia.

Like Goodman, Schröder seems to feel the lack of a slow movement in Op.3/6 and interpolates a stylish adagio, whereas Goodman opts for a different solution, taking two movements from Ottone and concluding his recording as an appendix with the allegro movement which the published score here ‘borrows’ from Handel’s first published Organ Concerto. Egarr interpolates a two-minute organ improvisation at this point.

In the final allegro of this concerto I wondered why it had been decided to alternate the organ with the harpsichord – the variation between the two instruments in this movement is disturbing. The notes are at least open about the fact that it was the intention that the two should “vie with one another as solo instruments”: it just doesn’t work for me. With multiple changes of tempo, too, this movement veers between the hectic and the unduly slow – at 4:19 overall, it’s slower than Pinnock, Egarr or de Vriend. Only Creswick comes close to that.

The recording quality on the new DHM CD is a match for the rival versions; though it’s a little close, the instruments are well placed and separated and the continuo gets more of a look in than often is the case nowadays. Perhaps there is a little too much continuo: the line-up in the booklet shows that two theorbos are employed in three of the concertos, which, surely, is a case of overkill. I usually ask for greater audibility of the continuo, but it’s sometimes a little prominent here.

The new DHM disc clocks in at only 55:04, which is decidedly on the short side for new, full-price CDs these days, a criticism which also applies to the Challenge Classics recording (55:48). Naxos, too, include just the six concertos, totalling 54:05, but at budget price. Harmonia Mundi include a 5-part Sonata, while Hyperion offer the best value of all – the alternative versions of Concerto No.4, plus the arrangement which I have described for Op.3/6, 77 minutes, all at budget price.

I wondered if I had been unkind to this new recording but, just as I was about to close and send off the review, I noticed that at least one other reviewer had expressed a very similar reaction to most of the points which I have raised: if anything, I have been rather kinder in finding the opening staccato of Op.3/3 stylish when he describes it as rougher than necessary.

I couldn’t see any reason to place this DHM version at or near the top of the pile, especially as it comes at a higher price than many of its rivals. My prime recommendations, therefore, stand, mostly at budget price: Trevor Pinnock in a superb-value DGG box set or Roy Goodman (Hyperion), both stylish performances on period instruments. On modern instruments, I enjoyed hearing Creswick (Naxos). At full price Egarr (Harmonia Mundi) is excellent, but I wonder if it is worth paying more than for Pinnock or Goodman. I haven’t heard the SACD tracks of the de Vriend, but that may well be your choice if you require surround sound.

Those seeking Op.3 with the twelve Op.6 concertos could do much worse than to purchase the mid-price Decca Originals 3-CD set with the Academy of St Martin directed by Neville Marriner and Iona Brown (475 8673, modern instruments – the set which I owned on LP for many years) or the Avie 3-CD album with Christopher Hogwood directing the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra (AV2065, period instruments – see review). Buy the Hogwood via MusicWeb International for (currently) £25 here. The original release of the Hogwood Op.6 is still the version that I play most: that came on 3 full-price CDs, a much less attractive proposition than the Avie reissue which adds Op.3.

Brian Wilson

Lively and exciting but too hectic in the main… see Full Review