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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti grossi, Op.6/1-6 (1739, 1741)
No.1 in G, HWV319 [11:17]
No.2 in F, HWV320 [10:53]
No.3 in e minor, HWV321 [10:39]
No.4 in a minor, HWV322 [10:17]
No.5 in D, HWV323 [15:02]
No.6 in g minor, HWV324 [14:31]
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
rec. Nikodemuskirche, Berlin, September 2018 and February 2019. DDD/DSD
PENTATONE PTC5186737 SACD [72:55]

Concerti Grossi, Op.6/7-12 (1739, 1741)
No.7 in B-flat, HWV325 [13:21]
No.8 in c minor, HWV326 [13:26]
No.9 in F, HWV327 [13:25]
No.10 in d minor, HWV328 [13:20]
No.11 in A, HWV329 [16:23]
No.12 in b minor, HWV330 [11:56]
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
rec. Nikodemuskirche, Berlin, February 2019. DDD/DSD
Reviewed from SACD HD stereo layer.
PENTATONE PTC5186738 SACD [80:29]

Of all the recordings of this wonderful music that I have heard – quite a few – none sounds so bright and light on its feet as this new Pentatone. Having heard the first set, I was looking forward to hearing the rest – and here they are before I had even got my thoughts on the first recording organised. I understand that a set of the Op.3 concertos is also en route. Though not intended to be performed consecutively, but rather, like the organ concertos, to be played during interludes in the theatre, these concerti are so varied that listening to them one after the other is a pleasure.

It has only recently occurred to me that it was more than coincidence that these twelve works have come to be known, from the second (1741) edition onwards as Op.6, which also happened to be the opus number of Corelli’s ground-breaking set of twelve concerti da chiesa and concerti da camera. Published in 1714, these set the type which Geminiani, Vivaldi, Handel and others were to follow. If forced to make a choice for my mythical – I hope – Desert Island, would I choose the Corelli or the Handel?

Certainly, there are some very strong advocates for the Corelli out there, from The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv 7479072), The Brandenburg Concert with Roy Goodman (Hyperion Dyad CDD22011), both 2-for-1 sets, and The Avison Ensemble directed by Pavlo Beznosiuk (Linn CKR411 – review of set with earlier catalogue number). The Linn, formerly on SACD, is now CD only, but 24-bit flac downloads are available from linnrecords.com.

We already had a wealth of choice of the Handel Op.6 concertos: on modern instruments with a sense of period style, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Iona Brown are still very hard to beat. Their 1981 Philips recording is available as a Presto special set or as downloads in mp3 or lossless sound (4765312). Though it runs to three CDs, the price remains competitive: £21.75 for the CDRs and around £20 for the lossless download. The earlier (1964/68) ASMF set of Op.3 and Op.6 with Neville Marriner is less expensive still on Decca Originals (4758673, around £14 as a lossless download).

On period instruments, Trevor Pinnock with The English Concert comes as part of an 11-CD collection (DG Archiv 4791932, around £47 on disc, but an incredible download bargain in lossless sound at £11.11 for 11 hours of wonderful music-making from Presto; over £50 from some other dealers). Andrew Manze with the Academy of Ancient Music (Harmonia Mundi HMU907228.29, download only, around £12 in lossless sound) and Christopher Hogwood with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra (Double Decca 4588172, around £11.50) are also well worth considering. If you bought the Decca Florilegium budget box Baroque Era or downloaded Volume 1 when I recommended it as an inexpensive buy, you will already have the Hogwood recordings.

Last, but not least, the Avison Ensemble whose recording I made Download of the Month in July 2010. The CDs seems to be out of stock but there are mp3, 16- and 24-bit downloads from linnrecords.com.

All these have their virtues and I have to admit to being hard put to make a top recommendation. When I embarked on reviewing the first set, I thought the choice would be easy in that I have found many of the earlier recordings from the Berlin Akademie different from other period-instrument groups, offering a darker sound which many would find more grounded and others would think a little too heavy. Their Handel is much more light and airy, whether because they are now recorded by Pentatone rather than Harmonia Mundi for whom they continue to record, as on the recent Haydn Missa Cellensis (HMM902300 Winter 2019-20 #1), or because of Bernhard Forck‘s direction, where other directors have preferred the darker sound. Compared with Pinnock and Hogwood, the sound is slightly fuller on the new Pentatone, whixh is not entirely due to the recording quality.

I certainly don’t wish to imply that either the performances or the recording are lightweight. The playing is generally straight, to the extent that it’s unlikely to upset those who got to know the music from pre- period-performance versions, but they do give the music a lift that I believe such listeners will appreciate. Even the Marriner recordings which were my staple listening in the 1970s now sound a trifle stodgy: it’s not so much a matter of tempo, though in No. 6 and No.7, for example, the extra minute and a half on the older recording in each case makes a good deal of difference.

Trevor Pinnock is actually a tad faster in places, as in the allegro second movement of No.7, but otherwise honours are about equal between Forck, Pinnock and Hogwood.

The recording is very good, making even Pinnock and Hogwood sound a touch thin. I listened initially to the first set from Naxos Music Library at 320 kb/s and was impressed. The SACD of the second volume is even more revelatory, even as heard from the HD stereo layer. I’m pleased to see that most Pentatone releases remain available in this format; I regret that many other labels have abandoned SACD and that blu-ray audio has not become more available. Fortunately download suppliers such as Hyperion, Chandos and Presto offer 24-bit downloads – in surround sound for BIS recordings from eclassical.com.

A recent article on the MusicWeb Message Board regrets that so few reviewers listen to the surround layer of an SACD, but most, like me, just don’t have space in their listening rooms for the extra equipment; in my case, though I do have a decent set-up in the lounge, it’s no match for the equipment in my very small study – actually the spare bedroom. I believe that plans are afoot for us to carry some surround-sound reviews.

In summary, though several other versions of these wonderful concerti grossi that I have named retain their appeal, the new set would make a very good choice for performance and recording, and there's only one other version currently available on SACD, the one by Arte dei Suonatori (review). A word of warning: follow the purchase links carefully – one dealer is asking £54 for a Japanese import of one of these SACDs as well as a more reasonably priced disc.

Brian Wilson

Previous review (vol. 1): Curtis Rogers



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