George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Concerti grossi, op. 3 (1734)
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec. Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen, 4-6 June 2009. DDD
CPO 777 488- 2 [58:35]

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Concerti grossi, op. 3 (1734)
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
rec. Salle Berthier, Paris, 20-23 December 1992. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 68162- 3 [56:15]

It matters little that ‘op. 3’ was compiled by the publisher John Walsh from already existing works. It still makes an enjoyable set.
The sturdy ritornello that opens Concerto 1 is an impressive start even if there is always that danger that its formality might become overbearing. The danger is avoided with the period instrument ensemble Concerto Copenhagen. Mortensen sets a sufficiently lively but relatively easygoing tempo. The concertino passages in the opening movement by two oboes and violin are lightly articulated. The performance wears its skill lightly, aided by firm continuo presence. The outcome is smiling and comely with a pleasing sense of chamber intimacy. What we hear is a convivial gathering of stylish players. If you were wishing for something a little more refined then that’s just what comes in the slow movement. Two recorders introduce and provide a refreshingly cool yet sheeny support to the solo oboe who engages in a fastidious dialogue with solo violin. This is beautifully done because, while highly embellished the playing has an element of reticence which gives it an attractive modesty. The other elements include smooth blend of ensemble, clarity of texture and spaciousness of recording. The tuttis are pleasingly full-toned without being overwhelming. After this the third movement (tr. 3) seems rather precipitate. It’s brief and forthright. Mortensen seems happy to wrap it up with just a nod and grin towards its uncharacteristically more mellow third episode for bassoon duet from 0:45. He caps this with a return to the opening movement’s comeliness in a delightfully florid and frisky finale. This is very satisfying because of its light touch and its return to the opening movement’s B flat major after two following movements in G minor. The problem is that this is not how the concerto was published. This ‘finale’ is the fourth movement of Concerto 2 and is so recorded by Goodman, Minkowski and Pinnock, to name three other period instrument interpretations. I’m happy with Mortensen’s choice: a new ‘compilation’.
It’s appropriate to compare Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre as their 1992 recording has now been reissued on Warner Apex. Minkowski’s opening movement is more dashing in both senses, taking 2:30 against Mortensen’s 2:50. The concertino is more ostentatious, the ripieno busier, the whole effect more dazzling. His slow movement is balmier, you might say more lush. Its concertino oboe and violin undoubtedly make an elegant pair. His third movement is stimulating and crisply done. At 1:08 faster than Mortensen’s 1:20 it sounds less hasty. He then makes it a more substantial item to end the concerto by repeating it, apart from the opening ritornello, so it plays for 2:17. 

The opening Vivace of Concerto 2 is lightly yet crisply articulated by Mortensen. You can really enjoy the interplay between the concertino first and second violin. I prefer this to the more assertive but also more tense Minkowski whose closing cadence features an extravagant solo violin improvisation. Mortensen Largo features as seductive period instrument oboe playing as I’ve ever heard. It’s aided by the support of two warm, mellow cellos. This could be Cleopatra captivating you. The flowing tempo, more Larghetto (2:19 against Minkowski’s 3:11), certainly helps. The cantilena becomes less self-conscious which is just what it is from Minkowski, though his oboist too is beautifully sultry. The third movement fugue from Mortensen is regal and sunny yet cheerily summative where Minkowski is more formal … and sprightly. Minkowski’s fourth movement Minuet merrily lightens the tension, though its closing somersaults are a bit hectic. Mortensen’s lightness of touch I find more attractive but he deploys this dance as the fourth movement of Concerto 1. If you want it here you have to switch back to or programme track 4. The fifth movement Gavotte (tr. 8) from Mortensen I found a bit too steady at first. There’s compensation in the liveliness in the bass in its first variation (1:03) and the exuberant running quaver triplets in the violins in the second (2:00). Minkowski has more spirit and energy from the outset, albeit at the cost of rather insistent accents.
Concerto 3 opens with a movement that’s no more than a straightforward, and from Mortensen neat, sequence of chords garnished with a recorder flourish. Minkowski has the recorder joining in the chords too to more lavish, but for me rather overblown, effect. The recorder also heads Mortensen’s following cheery Allegro. It starts a bevy of semiquavers which the concertino violin then takes up individually and in duet. Mortensen manages to make all this both vivacious and relaxed. Minkowski settles for activity and has a perkier recorder, more momentum, virtuosity and edge. The brief Adagio finds Mortensen’s recorder florid and aria-like in expression yet reflective in manner. Minkowski’s recorder is altogether more sensual and quite blatant about it. The fugue finale isn’t especially inventive and outstays its welcome. Mortensen makes it sound carefree and it’s blithely articulated. Minkowski again goes for a more energetic approach. Its bracing outcome is even more successful as his interpreters throw themselves into it with such relish.
The Concerto 4 recorded here is the one usually heard. It comes from the second printing of op. 3. To its Ouverture Mortensen brings a trim authority and a bristling purpose which relishes its own spikiness. The light Allegro is crisply articulated with the doubling first and second oboe and violins finely blended. This serves to clarify and also honour the counterpoint. The coda has an easy majesty. Its demisemiquaver flourishing ascents recall the introduction. Minkowski’s introduction is more formal and polite, but only so his second section by contrast can be more frothily skipping. It’s niftier with more excitement and fizz. This is a more dramatized approach with subtle light and shade in dynamic. The oboes are a touch more prominent, the counterpoint more insistent and tense. I like the way that in the closing section he finds more reflective nuance by softening just before the stately closing cadence.
The slow movement again spotlights the oboe. Mortensen’s is charming, urbane and mellifluous. Everything about the movement is stylish: the graceful elaboration of the strings’ introduction, the effortless oboe cantilena, the comfortable command of phrasing, the pearly oboe embellishment of the Adagio’s closing cadence. In comparison Minkowski rather throws away the elaboration of the strings’ introduction and goes for a plainer, albeit pleasingly ingenuous cantilena. While having a pastoral lightness, he’s less willing to relish the melodic sequences. He cedes the elaboration of the Adagio cadence to lute continuo. This movement times at 1:54 for Minkowski, 2:11 for Mortensen. The latter seems to offer much more. The following Allegro from Mortensen opens more soberly but then becomes a smoother pastoral piece. Minkowski from the start is fast, frisky and deliciously done. Mortensen gives a pleasing, well mannered account of the Minuet finale with contented strut and a quiet, serene middle section. Minkowski is much livelier: he scampers along teeming with trills. Indeed the piece becomes an anthology of ornamentation effects, great fun though, in the midst of which the middle section is suitably more sedate.
The benefits of period instruments and a small ensemble are clear in Mortensen’s Concerto 5. Its opening Andante has a clean cut, stark line. It progresses with terse rhetoric, proving that it’s possible to be dramatic without being massive. Minkowski is rather more self-conscious and imposing in his broader measure (1:41 against Mortensen’s 1:25) though heavier when it comes to the fuller body. Mortensen’s second movement fugue is clean of limb. The period violins’ silvery shining clarity enhances the flowering of the counterpoint. Minkowski is crisp and light, with more dancing character than Mortensen. Next comes a brief Adagio of sweetly distilled sorrow from Mortensen which evokes more sympathy than Minkowski’s beaming tone. Mortensen makes the fourth movement fugue rather more meaty than the second’s. It is fittingly accorded more rugged treatment with entries firmly accented. Minkowski takes a calmer, more subdued manner in the fugue which is less engaging than Mortensen’s. Mortensen also brings a haunting quality to the Adagio close, like a sudden sob as a mask is lifted. There are surprises in the Allegro finale too, to which Mortensen brings a sotto voce treatment as if for secretive naughtiness. The upper strings constantly escape from the lower ones trying to echo them. There’s a fascinatingly insubstantial central section (tr. 21, 1:05). Mortensen conjures a diminuendo for the final phrase which is as good a way as any to cap the music’s sheer bravura and momentum. Minkowski tries to go one better by being as fast and furious as possible (2:13 against Mortensen’s 2:34) but the outcome I find rather rough-hewn and tawdry.
Both recordings present Concerto 6 as Walsh compiled it, with a rather odd finale which was actually Handel’s first published organ concerto. Both recordings also add an improvised organ solo middle movement. A judicious balance between neatness and freshness characterizes the opening Vivace from Mortensen. His emphasis is on the orderly. Minkowski goes for a more stimulating approach with a good deal more pep. He times at 2:25 to Mortensen’s 3:04, but Mortensen is less exhausting for repeated hearings. In Minkowski’s account, however, it’s good to hear the organ clearly featured towards the end. This means that it doesn’t appear out of the blue as the only instrument in the second movement. Mortensen opts for an Adagio improvisation on a ground bass taking 2:21. It’s cool, meditative and makes a pleasing contrast with the other movements. Minkowski opts for an animated display piece of the same character as its neighbours taking 0:45. Perhaps because of Mortensen’s intervening contrast his finale has more compelling zip with both organ and orchestra in vibrant form. Minkowski is lively too but his phrase-ends, in comparison, seem just a touched clipped and less punchy than those from Mortensen.  
To sum up, then, Minkowski offers displays of virtuosity and excitement at an attractive reissue price. Warner Apex don’t supply booklet notes but with such well-known works I don’t mind. Minkowski is undeniably stimulating. Mortensen, however, gives us state of the art interpretations for today. I left his CD less energized than with Minkowski but more satisfied. There’s more sense of the engaging comeliness of the music’s variety and elegance.
Michael Greenhalgh

Minkowski offers virtuosity and excitement, but Mortensen gives us state of the art.