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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti grossi op. 3, HWV 312-17 (1734) [69:06]
Berliner Barock Solisten/Reinhard Goebel
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 2019

This new recording of Handel’s op. 3 concerti grossi has two features that should be clarified. Firstly, it’s made by a group and conductor very much dedicated to historically informed performance, but using modern instruments. Secondly, it incorporates the first recording of the first version of Concerto 4, of which more later, since 1992. What you get from Reinhard Goebel in Concerto 1 is, in the first movement, the clean lined progression of a piece going places with a main body of purposive strings, as if sweeping through an avenue of trees, alternating with which are two florid oboe soloists, seeming to focus on the elaborate foliage of individual trees. Soon a solo violin appears and duets with the first oboe while spasmodic tuttis show the alternative approaches I’ve outlined are able to coexist harmoniously and even enrich one another. Momentum and animation is everything which makes for a heady experience and yet Goebel is able to provide it in a judiciously refined manner, making it even-handed and orderly without being dull. I compared the most recent recording of this work, made in 2009 on period instruments by Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen (CPO 777 488-2, review). His approach is calmer, more analytical and reflective, satisfyingly neat with Handel’s orchestration more transparent, partly because he’s recording in a less reverberant acoustic than Goebel has in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Church. With the same size ensemble, Goebel makes a fuller, heartier, more convivial sound, the oboes especially more welcoming.

The slow movement, in G minor, starts with two recorder and two bassoon soloists, a distinctively cooler yet quite fresh atmosphere into which a solo oboe introduces a soulful cantilena, with which the main body of strings get involved, but also a solo violin which duets with the oboe. I like the individual contrasts in ornamentation Goebel’s soloists provide, displaying a community of active involvement and personal ownership. But the two bassoons which play the same notes are for me in this recording too prominent in relation to the differentiated melodic line of the recorders. However, an appropriate contrast is then achieved when only one bassoon (from tr. 2, 1:14) plays alongside the interplay between solo violin and oboe. And should the Adagio close be as chaste as Goebel has it, without the oboe ornamentation suggested in the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe? In Mortensen’s account the two bassoons are a touch more tempered against the recorders while the use of an oboe d’amore as a soloist, i.e. a mezzo-soprano rather than treble oboe, makes for a more luscious addition to the sound palette, though the brighter sound of Goebel’s treble oboe interacts more equably with the recorders and violin. In the Adagio close Mortensen shares embellishments between oboe and violin.

The finale has from Goebel a trim tutti ritornello of sweeping descending phrases that will brook no argument with contrasted chucklesome episodes in which soloists in turn bubble with semiquaver runs: oboes in the first episode, violin in the second and, merriest of all, bassoons in the third. Here, unlike the previous movement, we have two bassoons with independent parts. Mortensen’s ritornello is lighter, but then there’s less contrast with the episodes than with Goebel, though they are agreeably nimble. Goebel brings more thrust and style to the proceedings.

Concerto 2 has a first movement (tr. 4) which begins from Goebel with a majestic, rhythmically incisive tutti, within which two solo violins enter to pursue each other in semiquaver runs and then, together, complement one another. I would have appreciated more clarity at the point of entry of both soloists. From 1:11 the oboes and orchestral violins’ quavers in counterpoint become more prominent and at 1:23 the oboes briefly take centre stage with the fillip of quavers in triplets. At the close there’s a transition, marked Grave, formally presented by Goebel, to the slow movement. Mortensen doesn’t go for majesty but trimness and firmness yet his soloists’ entries are crystal clear. He’s relaxed about the closing transition with a little gracious ornamentation by the solo violin.

As in Concerto 1, the slow movement of Concerto 2 also features an oboe cantilena, this one for me the lovelier without other soloists except a luxuriously respectful backcloth of figurations in semiquavers dovetailed between two cellos. The oboe’s line is similarly luxuriantly and beautifully decorated by Goebel’s soloist. Mortensen, timing the movement at 2:19 to Goebel’s 2:35, offers a less expansive Largo which is also rather more veiled and inward, though his oboist’s ornamentation is busier, for me not to its advantage.

The third movement (tr. 6) is a fugue. Its first thematic tag, the opening falling notes from the first oboe and its second, the rising notes of the second oboe (0:02) are in due course with Goebel brightly interchanged by the whole ensemble in a piece that exudes confidence that’s all’s well, all’s orderly, in the world. Mortensen’s fugue is lighter, defter, demurer, yet thereby the intricacy of Handel’s writing is more readily appreciable.

The fourth movement is a Minuet whose theme is shared between first oboe and tutti violins. Goebel gives it an exuberant kick to which its touches of dotted and skipping, faster rhythms are well suited. But for me repeating the first strain, not marked in the HHA urtext, is having too much of a good thing as the melody comes again, albeit in varied guise, in the second strain, where solo first and second violins quickly echo the first oboe theme. Here Goebel’s bassoon adds a delightful improvised filler to introduce the marked second strain repeat. Mortensen’s dynamics and articulation are quieter, but his faster tempo, 1:29 against Goebel’s equivalent 1:50, discounting his first strain repeat, makes for a more vivacious experience. Incidentally Mortensen takes the Minuet out of Concerto 2 and adds it as a finale to Concerto 1 so that ends, as it properly ought to, in B flat major.

It’s reasonable for Mortensen to take that movement out as Concerto 2 has another dance as a finale, this time a Gavotte (tr. 8). Its melody is presented by oboe soloists backed by bassoons and, now and again, the string band. Goebel presents this quintessentially perky Handel with an easy flair. Its first variation (1:04) adds a serene backing from the lower strings’ running quavers. Its second variation (2:09) has the livelier texture, through adding running triplets in the violins. Both variations’ strategies ensure the dance keeps romping forward while Goebel judiciously balances the additions to complement rather than oust the tune. Mortensen, his Gavotte a touch faster at 3:07 to Goebel’s 3:20, begins cheerfully neat, but uses the string bass quavers of Variation 1 to galvanise the piece into more eager progression. This, however, proves a ploy to emphasise the admirable orderliness of the theme in Variation 2 by treating the violins’ running triplets as simply an exquisite decoration.

Concerto 3 (tr. 9) has a brief yet vivid Largo e staccato introduction: four authoritative chords, five throwaway ones, a calm yet thoughtful cadence. Goebel catches the variety well, being at first imposing, then knockabout, then with a solo flute’s cadential trill hovering between excitement and fear. Now comes an impeccably fluent Allegro which looks like it’s going to be a fugue, except its material ends up as a ritornello and the presentation of the elements of that is always varied, with semiquaver runs of solo flute interspersed as episodes. From episode 2 (1:14) a solo violin responds to the flute and, while the oboe may alternatively take the top solo line, I prefer the airiness of the flute which creamily matches the fluency of Goebel’s presentation and is the more telling as it’s the only use of flute on this CD. It’s time to compare a recording on modern instruments, by the Combattimento Consortium Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend from 2005 (Challenge Classics CC 72140, now only available as a download). In the introduction de Vriend’s opening four chords are warm and inviting before his scampering five chords to follow. His flautist elaborates the cadence, giving a foretaste of later floridity. This is less varied and dramatic than Goebel but arguably more agreeable. Timing the Allegro at 2:25 against Goebel’s 2:40, de Vriend is more vivacious and I prefer his ensemble’s lighter touch, but the soloists’ contributions in comparison with Goebel’s seem to me a mite hectic, so in this case I’d suggest less speed brings more satisfaction.

The second movement is an Adagio, a flute arioso punctuated by string chords. Here again I feel a more reflective approach yields more dividends, but now from different performers! The timing of de Vriend is 1:03 and his flute is more soulful, aided by light chords from the strings and an arpeggiated lute continuo, so you can picture a singer with lute. At 0:50 Goebel seems comparatively perfunctory with heavier string chords and a flautist indulging in a couple of ostentatious flights of fancy to impose his presence.

The Allegro finale is a conventional fugue with a fetching start but a rarely differentiated part for the flute soloist, for example with Goebel you have to wait until 1:18 before you can hear him blooming independently. Paradoxically every part is articulated so carefully the individual lines become enmeshed rather than standing out distinctly. The movement is also very repetitive, so for me it palls a bit in Goebel’s hands. The concertino violin plays throughout with the first violins, who with the seconds have one of those majestic, summative Handelian parades near the close (tr. 11, 3:41) that here seems unwarranted by what has gone before. Now speed is better. Timing at 3:47 to Goebel’s 4:08, de Vriend I find far preferable here for his fleeter, lighter and brighter approach, which also allows the soloists to shine, rightly I feel understating the ripieno contributions, in fact dispensing with them altogether at the outset until the whole string body entry, as at 0:17 in Goebel.

Concerto 4 exists in two totally different versions, the better of which is that normally played and has an Andante introduction to an Allegro main body first movement. In the second edition of op. 3 published in 1735 this replaced the Concerto 4 published in the first edition of 1734 which I discuss at the end of this review. This replacement begins with a full-scale French overture and full scales and beyond is what happens in semi and demisemiquaver rises in its introduction in the violins, oboes and string bass. Goebel presents these with a swagger and the whole has brio. He brings a sense of excitement to the Allegro fugue whose sequences reinforce the key feelings of abundance and majesty before the ostentatious scales return in the Lentemente closing section. Goebel’s performance has fine vertical as well as horizontal clarity. Timing the overture at 5:31 to Goebel’s 6:12, de Vriend brings more bounce to the introduction, this taking 1:01 against Goebel’s 1:18. It is after all marked Andante and the overture then thrills from the start, but de Vriend thereby loses Goebel’s contrast of welcoming lightness at the Allegro. Dynamic contrast and verve are more notable from de Vriend but, less attractively, an awareness of subsections, where Goebel’s steadying hand keeps his eyes on the whole sweep to statelier and more luxurious effect.

The second movement is an Andante in the style of a Minuet, featuring an oboe solo. More semi and demisemiquavers from the first violins and continuo bristle beneath a stabilizing yet still highly decorative oboe, after which, for contrast, I understand Geobel’s refusal to take up the suggested oboe elaboration of the doubled first violin line in HH-A in the Adagio transition to the next movement. Finding de Vriend slower in the ‘Minuet’, at 1:51 to Goebel’s 1:38, is a surprise but I prefer it as the orchestral bristling then becomes stimulating rather than aggressive and the soloist has the space to make the oboe line more gracefully decorative. Unsurprisingly then de Vriend has no qualms about taking full advantage of the HH-A suggestions for decoration in the linking Adagio.

The third movement Allegro is a tripping, loosely fugal piece to which Goebel brings a disciplined authority in a rather gauntly fluorescent sheen that comes from the key of D minor. The episode for 2 solo violins (tr. 14, 0:39) relieves the restriction a bit. As in many of these concertos, there’s material Handel used in other works and I can’t hear the six- quaver phrase that first features in the oboes from 0:24 without remembering ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’, the words to which it’s sung in Acis and Galatea. Timing at 1:22 against Goebel’s 1:33, de Vriend invests the piece with a frantic energy and also makes greater, indeed startlingly, dramatic play of the sustained accompanying notes in the bassoons (0:24 in Goebel) and later bassoons followed by violins (1:03) at the points that six-quaver phrase enters.

The Minuet finale has from Goebel a rosy-cheeked nature. It’s jaunty yet goes with a rather heavy swing, though I like the blend of such pomposity with the tipsily lurching appoggiaturas and occasional tiptoes in dynamic contrasts. The middle section has the tune loud in the bassoons, second violins and viola, dominated by Goebel’s bassoons, but the first violins’ civilized counter tune of an accompaniment deserves to be heard a little more: HH-A suggests only un poco piano for it. Timing the finale at 2:40 to Goebel’s 2:56, de Vriend brings more swing and brightness at the cost of being seventy-percent sober. In the middle section tune and counter tune are a little more evenly balanced and warmly, perhaps rather unctuously, presented.

Concerto 5 begins with a sizeable movement of introduction that alternates triplets in unison violins with forbidding tutti chords in response. Goebel is suitably imposing but de Vriend has more impact. This is partly because he’s a little faster, 1:25 against Goebel’s 1:36, which makes the triplets seem more relentless, but largely because his smaller ensemble articulates the chords with more punch. The second movement is an Allegro fugue with three main elements: its opening downward scale, sustained notes that cut across this and a bobbing figure of running quavers. Handel’s melding of these maintains interest and tension. Goebel balances well the articulation of the formal line and expression of satisfaction in the gathering of the elements. He takes 2:31 in comparison with de Vriend’s 2:18, but here’s a case where a steadier approach allows the wood to be seen as well as the trees. There’s crisper bobbing from de Vriend, but you just see trees which scintillate in a rather glaring light and only get a sense of rigorous execution.

The third movement is a short Adagio to which Goebel brings refined, silky strings and a sense of mystery. A more plaintive, achingly expressive manner is adopted by de Vriend, for me over self-conscious and operatic in this context. The fourth movement is another fugue. Goebel brings a rugged progression to it: dependable and gutsy. There’s even more assertiveness, rhythm and bounce from de Vriend, yet the effect is of a mass of bickering folk determined to make their contributions. The finale is an Allegro in gavotte rhythm. From Goebel this is lively and characterful, a dance to sweep the cobwebs away with a jocular momentum. On its second playthrough it gains a descant in the first and second violins and oboes, a pattern which continues with melodic variation, while later there’s the give and take of interplay between the second violins and everyone else in a two-crotchet figure. Towards the end of the da capo repeat Goebel softens and slows down, as if to say ‘Ça ne fait rien’: that’s not historically informed, but it is consistent with the dance’s airily carefree progression. Timing the finale at 2:27 to Goebel’s 2:52, de Vriend gives us an Allegro molto. As a display of scuttering it’s a marvel, but the variety that Goebel reveals will pass you by. The picture I got was a mass of lemmings eagerly throwing themselves off a cliff. Apparently, for lemmings this isn’t suicide, but in the words of Encyclopædia Britannica, “an irresistible metaphor for human behaviour”.

Concerto 6 has only two movements. Considering there’s a lacuna between them, de Vriend fills it with a 50 second organ cadenza. I prefer Goebel’s approach, to reserve the organ as a surprise for the finale. Goebel starts the first movement (tr. 21) chipper enough, sporting an athletic sweep of violins scaling the heights and plumbing the depths in quick succession with chromaticism thrown in to spice the palette from 0:17, then semiquaver runs added for good measure. Two oboes are the soloists and the strings aren’t just eager to cut in at the end of their first and second phrases but must outdo them with an octave descent (0:32, 0:34) when the first oboe only falls a third and the second a fourth. Goebel even pertinently adds violin trills from time to time to make sure everything’s chic. I’d have preferred the oboes to be clearer in the tuttis, the violins rather swamp them, but they do get an interlude to themselves with bassoons from 2:05. Although a mite faster in timing, at 2:51 to Goebel’s 3:00, de Vriend is somehow not as sparkling as Goebel, I sense a touch of caution in getting the phrasing exact, so Goebel’s confident sweep isn’t realized. However, the balance of oboes and strings in the tuttis is better from de Vriend and I prefer his treatment of the strings’ cut-ins I mentioned earlier, which is to play both strong, as marked, where Goebel plays the second softer as an echo.

A tutti bristling with trills starts the second movement which is unique in the op. 3 set in having a keyboard soloist, for Goebel played by Raphael Alpermann on chamber organ. In the repeat to the first half he adds a modicum of enjoyably playful ornamentation. In the second half those tutti cut-in chords which were a feature of the first movement turn up again, but here they’re just punctuating the keyboard solo. In the repeat Alpermann becomes more frolicsome in ornamentation and it’s a fair way to bring the set to a bit of a whooping conclusion. As it happens, de Vriend’s tuttis are here more assertive and his later cut-in chords more biting, but Goebel’s more urbane approach is more in keeping with the spirit of the piece. The organist of de Vriend offers a little more ornamentation in the first half repeat, but then the greater amount in the second isn’t so much the high jinks as Goebel’s.

Concerto 4 as it appeared in Walsh’s first edition is included on Goebel’s CD at the end, as a kind of appendix, which is how it also appears in the HH-A urtext. I have found just two other recordings of this version currently available, one on modern instruments by the New Bach Collegium Musicum Leipzig/Max Pommer, recorded in 1983 (Capriccio C10021, now only available as a download), the other on period instruments by the Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman, recorded in 1992 (Hyperion CDH55075). Goebel’s opening Largo seems to me rather laboured owing to the heavy accenting of its unvarying dotted rhythms. Pommer is still sturdy but, timing at 1:26 to Goebel’s 1:41, gets more elegance from the interplay of the first oboe’s sustained notes against the second’s descending motif in sequences. Goodman, at 1:46, is the slowest but the care he takes with phrasing makes the piece stylish. Fortunately, semiquaver runs everywhere in the second movement Allegro ensure that Goebel’s is lively. Two solo oboes spur on the melodic line, well supported by bassoons in the continuo and latterly the first violins take up something of the oboes’ jollity. Goebel here has the edge on Pommer in conveying an irrepressible momentum, though Pommer’s oboes and solo violin are splendidly cheery. Goodman is again the slowest, taking 3:41 in this movement in comparison with Goebel’s 3:14 and Pommer’s 3:23. Goodman is light and deft but sounds rather sedate beside the vivacity of Goebel, though if you like Goodman’s approach, Goebel will seem to be scrambling! The third movement Largo is for 2 oboes, violin, cello and continuo, as if the proceedings have suddenly turned into a trio sonata. Goebel’s expansive treatment works well this time. This is ethereal, intimate and refined while he also achieves pleasing interplay, especially between oboes and violin. Pommer’s faster approach, more Larghetto, timing at 3:06 to Goebel’s 3:30, creates a contented pastoral of attractively shaped phrasing, aided by golden tone from the oboes. Again, Goodman is the most expansive, taking 3:46, but thereby obtains the most relaxed, sensuous playing of all. The Allegro finale is a Minuet given a fair swing and, I feel, a touch of rusticity by Goebel which for me catches fire more than the nifty elegance of Pommer and courtly grace of Goodman. Nowadays this concerto is regarded as not by Handel but it’s far from negligible and makes an interesting bonus, particularly the second Largo.

If you think Handel these days is played too lightweight and too fast, Goebel’s robust, firmly upholstered, steady yet urbane accounts are for you. I retain a preference for the period instruments of Mortensen while de Vriend is there if you like more drama and bite.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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