George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Concerti Grossi Opus 6
No. 1 in G major [11:22]
No. 2 in F major [9:55]
No. 3 in E minor [10:41]
No. 4 in A minor [10:19]
No. 5 in D major [15:04]
No. 6 in G minor [14:34]
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
rec. 2018/19, Nikodemuskirche, Berlin, Germany PENTATONE PTC5186737 SACD [72:55]
The dozen Concerti Grossi which Handel published as his Opus Six constitute one of the pinnacles of that ubiquitous Baroque form. But, even though he composed them in a burst of inspired activity in the autumn of 1739 and was evidently influenced by Corelli's equally celebrated set, Handel's more immediate purpose in their composition was to create a body of which works which he could use during the intervals between the acts of his larger stage works as lighter entertainment.
In their recording of the first half of the series, the chamber-sized Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are unfazed by the canonical status of these works and give them fresh, spirited readings, led by their concertmaster Bernhard Forck, although the solo parts are shared among other players within the ensemble. The Akademie’s interpretations may bypass a more typically Handelian grandeur, but they are theatrically alive - appropriately, given the provenances of these concertos - sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, the solo (concertino) instruments often interpose the brief snatches of their dialogue with the orchestra (ripieno) with a teasing reticence, rather than standing up to the full ensemble with more assertive vigour, as in the first and second movements of No. 1. The pause at the end of the first phrase of No.2’s first movement also testifies to a general mood of levity, as do the brisk cadential phrases at the end of that movement (rather than drawing out its half-close portentously) as well as the playful articulation of the falling crotchet theme of the finale. No.5 presses on purposefully, but not overly hastily, in its first movement which can be taken in some performances with overbearing pomp in its D major opulence.
Perhaps by the time of the meditative Musette third movement of No.6, the sequence of movements throughout the concertos here – at a pace which is generally flowing and inclining towards the brisk, if not exactly rushed – becomes a touch wearing. The tempos could sometimes let up and allow the often rich sonorities of Handel’s score to breathe more, particularly in the slow movements. But Forck’s lithe approach has the advantage of not weighing the music down, reaping dividends in the reading of the first movement of No.4, for instance, where the marking affettuoso is, for once, properly observed: where its hollow A minor key leads some ensembles to make that movement darker than it need be, here the pairs of semiquavers, which are really written out appoggiaturas, as musical sighs, remain buoyant rather than heavy-handed.
Strumming lute and emphatic attack by the harpsichord make for a continuo section which offers notable zest and bite, except where the organ is substituted for the latter instrument in order to instil a more sombre, solemn character for No.3 for example, though the drone bass for that concerto's Polonaise movement happily imparts sufficient rustic robustness so as to ward off any too precious or effete character. Oboes and bassoons are added to the orchestral colour in Nos. 1, 2, 5, and 6 as specified by Handel as an option.
Such masterpieces as these Concertos can never be exhausted of their interpretative possibilities by one reading, and these accounts certainly do not aim at setting down anything unarguable and definitive. The recording by The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Mariner remains a sound choice for its four-square elegance and dignity at one end of the sonic spectrum, whilst Combattimento Consort Amsterdam
(review) offer something much more nervously edgy and experimental at the other, demonstrating that a febrile energy cannot tear apart the music's coherence and eloquence. But the Akademie's accomplished and rhythmically alert performances provide an attractive and happy medium, with plenty to offer on its own terms rather than having to be seen as a compromise and failing to achieve anything distinctive. They have since also recorded and released the remaining half of the Concertos to complete the set.
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