George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Organ Concerto No. 13 in F, HWV295 The Cuckoo and the Nightingale [13:40]
Organ Concerto No. 14 in A, HWV296 [17:29]
Oboe Concerto No. 3 in g minor, HWV 287* [8:42]
Chacone in G, HWV 343b [6:51]
Organ Concerto No. 15 in d minor, HWV304 [13:58]
Organ Concerto No. 11 in g minor, HWV310, Op. 7 No. 5 [13:09]
Paolo Grazzi (oboe)*
La Davina Armonia/Lorenzo Ghielmi (organ)
rec. Santuario del Divin Prigioniero, Valle di Colorina, Italy, 25-27 April 2012. DDD.
PASSACAILLE PAS990 [74:16]
Limit me to one recording of Handel’s orchestral music and I’d have to pass reluctantly over the Op.3 and Op.6 Concerti Grossi in favour of his organ concertos. Written to fill in during the intervals at the opera, they are far too good to be used as mere background music.
Limit me further to one recording and I’d try to cheat by choosing the 3-CD set of Simon Preston’s recordings with the English Concert and Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv Trio 469 3582). If you held my nose to the grindstone and insisted that it be just one CD, I’d find it hard to choose between the single mid-price disc of five concertos from that Preston/Pinnock set (DG E447 3002) and this new Passacaille release.
The works recorded here are mostly from Handel’s second set, without opus numbers, apart from the closing g minor concerto, HWV310, which was published as Op.7/5. As on Lorenzo Ghielmi’s earlier CD of the Organ Concertos, Op.4/1-5 (Passacaille 944), room has been found for a concerto for another instrument; there it was the Harp Concerto, Op.4/6, here it’s the Oboe Concerto, HWV287 with Paolo Grazzi as soloist.
We don’t seem to have covered that earlier release but MusicWeb International reviewer Johan van Veen did so on his own site, musica-dei-donum.org, greatly preferring Ghielmi’s sense of drama to Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi.
I started by re-familiarising myself with Simon Preston’s The Cuckoo and the Nightingale - it’s on both the 3-CD set and the single album - and found it as genteel and charming as I remembered it, with the birds duetting amicably. With the exception of the closing allegro, where there’s just one second difference between them, Lorenzo Ghielmi takes the music faster than Preston. Instead of the amicable duet on the Preston recording, Ghielmi’s birds are in competition. For Preston’s urbanity he substitutes theatricality and competition; after all, though the title was not given by Handel, the cuckoo and nightingale were supposed to be in competition in a poem once attributed to Chaucer.
That competition exists both between organist and orchestra - now echoing one another, now challenging each other, and between the various bird sounds made by the organ. We even get a few superfluous chirps that aren’t in Handel’s score, which is fine because we know that Handel would have improvised. That brings me to another plus for the new recording; not only does Ghielmi add some tasteful ornamentation to the solo part, he also plays organo ad libitum between movements in Handelian style.
If it seems in the case of HWV295 as if the new recording is likely to replace the DG as part of my regular listening, the same is true of the other concertos included on the CD. I had no serious reservations anywhere, though I just wondered if the central movement of HWV296 (track 8) was a little fast - at 3:54 Ghielmi is almost a minute faster than Preston - but, though faster than the andante marking might indicate, the chosen tempo works well. I never once felt that the music was being pushed at a pace that it couldn’t stand.
That’s true, too, for the Oboe Concerto, HWV287, where Paolo Grazzi gives a good account of the solo part. It’s an early work, though sometimes referred to as Oboe Concerto No.3, and its charms are fully apparent from this performance.
There’s one set of the Handel Organ Concertos that I haven’t yet mentioned, with Paul Nicholson and The Brandenburg Consort directed by Roy Goodman (Hyperion Dyad, 2-for-1, CDD22052). The special appeal of the Hyperion set is that it’s performed on the organ at St Lawrence, Whitchurch, once the parish church of the Canons estate of the Duke of Chandos for whom Handel composed the Chandos Anthems and Acis and Galatea, an instrument with which he would have been familiar, though rather different in style from the Covent Garden organ employed for the concertos.
That set is, in fact, complementary to the Passacaille CD, since it offers only the Op.4 and Op.7 concertos, so there’s no Cuckoo and Nightingale. Where the two compete in Op.7/5 (HWV310), as expected, Ghielmi’s tempi are faster except in the andante (track 22) and his slightly more measured approach there certainly works for me. Look out for a review of the Hyperion set in a forthcoming Download News. For the record, however, I also enjoyed Nicholson and Goodman in this concerto. There’s also a set of the Op.4 concertos from Matthew Halls on Avie - review - that I must catch up with; from a first hearing from the Naxos Music Library it’s worth pursuing.
The organ employed for the Passacaille recording is a modern (2007) Italian instrument; it’s not a chamber organ but its specification, given in the booklet, makes it suitable for the kind of music that Handel would have played at Covent Garden; after all he was the most Italianate of all ‘English’ composers. It dominates the sound-stage more than Simon Preston’s instrument or Paul Nicholson’s, but that’s no bad thing. Part of the theatricality of these performances is achieved by having the organ and orchestra compete and combine on more or less equal terms.
I’ve referred throughout to the soloist/director as if his were the only contribution, but I must add that the period-instrument ensemble La Davina Armonia also contribute considerably to the success of this CD.
The recording is good - full and immediate - and Lorenzo Ghielmi’s own notes, which are idiomatically translated, are helpful; he points us, for example, to those passages which Handel cribbed from himself and from others. It’s well known that he regularly ‘borrowed’ from his own music, but I hadn’t realised, for example, his debt to Johann Kerl for the bird sounds in HWV295. Looking hard for something critical to say about the new recording, my copy of the score of Op.7/5, like the Hyperion booklet, gives the indication andante larghetto e staccato, whereas Passacaille simply says andante e larghetto - and that may well be due to Ghielmi’s use of a more scholarly edition rather than a misprint. He certainly plays staccato - and with his usual degree of tasteful ornamentation - in that movement where appropriate.
As I suspected right from the moment that I started to play this CD, this is going to be a frequent visitor to my audio system, perhaps even in preference to Simon Preston or Paul Nicholson.
This impressed me greatly right out of the box.
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