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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerti grossi op. 3, HWV 312-17 (1734) [54:11]
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Georg Kallweit (concertmaster)
rec. Nikodemuskirche, Berlin, 2019
PENTATONE PTC5186776 SACD [54:11]

From the six concertos of Handel’s op. 3, I’ve chosen to focus on the three I think most significant, so that I can compare in some detail the period instruments of Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin shepherded by their concertmaster Georg Kallweit with the most recent previous period instruments’ recording, made in 2009 by Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen (CPO 777 488-2, review) and an earlier favourite of mine, Tafelmusik/Jeanne Lamon (Sony G010003293362Q, download only), recorded in 1991.
I love the adventure quality of Concerto 1 in B flat major for starters, provided the performance is lively and this new one is certainly that. Its three movements for me conjure up a story. In the first you’re traversing the entrance hall of a great residence full of activity. In the second, you find yourself in a private chamber for privileged guests only. In the finale, your treat over, you’re efficiently whisked away. Even in the first movement, Kallweit, frisky and eager, isn’t hanging around. The first violin solo, all semiquavers, is crisp, neat, and flashy, the tuttis which portray the gathering around a mite fierce, so you have to stand out. But soon the visiting party are settling with a playful interchange between solo violin and oboe (tr. 1 from 1:15) and then slow down a bit in duet (1:23) to accommodate with style the combination of trills and demisemiquavers. Later I like the two oboes’ pause slightly at the end of their phrase (1:57) to flag up the violin’s succession of semiquaver leaps to high F, after which it gets back up to speed for the closing tutti.

Mortensen is in a simpler, convivial grouping and, timing at 2:43 to Kallweit’s 2:20, there’s more deliberation than display about his progress, but the tempi remains uniform. You can argue that if Handel had wanted contrast, he would have marked it, as he does for notable contrasts. With Mortensen every element is clear, especially the concerto grosso contrast of the concertino, the passages for the soloists, and the ripieno, the main body. Lamon, timing at 2:30, finds a middle way between Kallweit and Mortensen, which seems to me ideal. She is eager without being combative and her solos, for me, have a more convivial spirit. Her ripieno violins also have the most exciting demisemiquaver sweep (1:40 in Kallweit).

Recorders enter in the second movement, bringing both a cool, G minor pastoral, and in Kallweit’s account also something of an exotic, hothouse atmosphere, and the interplay between solo oboe and violin adds to this, with lots of ornamentation from both, yet in keeping with the overall manner of idyllic extravagance. Mortenson, timing at 4:22 to Kallweit’s 3:51, savours the experience more. Mortenson offers a clear-headed, benign meditation, his ornamentation expanding the melody lovingly rather than demonstrating technique. Timing at 4:12, Lamon steers a path between the others. The contrast between the instrumental soloists is in this older recording sharpest of all: the recorders bright and perky, the oboe glowing and a key focus, the violin more delicate and elegant. As with Mortensen, Lamon’s ornamentation seems set within the melodic line as thereby an inherent part of it. The movement then progresses as an eloquent statement.

The finale, staying in G minor, is all about clearing you away, politely of course. The tuttis therefore are suitably sweeping, but I like the momentum and enthusiasm Kallweit brings to the duet of oboes and violin solo. The new feature is a duet for bassoons (tr. 3, 0:47) with some bubbling semiquavers of their own, a lovely moment of difference: are they contentedly sozzled? Do they cock a snook at the prevailing discipline from a suitable position somewhat in the background? For me they’re still too shamefaced, yet they have a touch more character under Kallweit than they do for Mortensen and Lamon. Mortensen is all tidiness here where Lamon’s oboes and violin do enjoy being industrious.

Concerto 2 is also in B flat major, this time throughout, and begins with much the same structure, so the interest lies in how Handel’s music differs. Here the ripieno gestures that set off the concertino momentum are more formal, you could say puppet like, so there’s more contrast between the two groups of instruments and the musical lines are more clean-cut. This new establishment visited is fussier about display and discipline. The tutti is crisp, the concertino mettlesome, then the oboes add a layer first of sustained notes, then of a motif of rising quavers, so there’s a sense of growing purpose and finally a lead-in to a Largo slow movement, further introduced by a backcloth of accompanying semiquavers from a duet of solo cellos. The preceding concerto begins to seem very informal. This second one also features an oboe solo in its slow movement, but within that a more formal cellos’ surround which is here from Kallweit, nevertheless, quite regal, and welcoming. That itself is a counterbalance, as the solo is a probing cantilena of often quite high tessitura, here decked out in expressive ornamentation, unmistakably recalling pain. It’s delivered with immense presence yet also grace. Now the third movement is from Kallweit a brightly articulated, optimistic fugue headed by the doubling of both the violins and oboe parts, a message to banish previous cares. Yet that is a continuation of the earlier formality, now relaxed by an additional, pastoral movement of semiquaver trills and flurries in oboes and violins. Kallweit, timing at 1:16 to Mortensen’s 1:23 and Lamon’s 1:28, sounds enjoyably racy but a bit scrambled. To confirm the change of perspective, now comes a finale that grows sprightlier and more light-hearted, headed by oboes, then given a faster thrust through running quavers in the bass (tr. 8, 0:52) and finally made more skipping by violins in triplets (1:45), so the ending is one of irrepressible joy.

Mortensen’s first movement is more intimate and smiling than Kallweit’s, yet his crispness of articulation provides a suitable element of formality. In his slow movement the cellos are too present and so obscure somewhat the expressive, warm meditation of the oboe solo which lacks edge in comparison with Kallweit’s. Mortensen’s fugue, scrupulously articulated, is cooler than Kallweit’s: it’s trim yet misses Kallweit’s brightness and optimism. Kallweit, timing the finale at 2:43 to Mortensen’s 3:03, has more zip than Mortensen’s nicely phrased but too laid back and rather solid opening to make more of a contrast with the running quavers and triplets later. Yet those triplets should be a stronger presence in the texture, a matter of balance rather than dynamic, as Kallweit’s are. Mortensen’s presentation of the movements of Concerto 2 is curious: he begins with the pastoral movement, then the other movements in the usual order.

Lamon’s first movement is a touch stiff and the violin solo could be more prominent, but the beaconing effect of its sustained oboe notes is well realized. In her slow movement the musing of the cellos is both warm and sensitive. The oboe is also expressive though very ornate, which is effective within the overall richness but takes a little away from the emotive impact. You may, however, think of it as a singer’s aria. The embellishment of its closing cadence is very fine. The fugue is attacked with vigour rather than the triumphant certainty of Kallweit or the finesse of Mortensen, yet the overall effect is fresh. Lamon’s pastoral movement, at 1:28 the slowest of the three interpreters, is more laid back in rusticity. Her finale, while firmly articulated, also has a good swing. The quaver runs are comfortably assumed, so sound a bit stodgy, but the violins’ triplets have more spring.

Concerto 4 in F major I’d suggest is the most rounded, with a very attractive mix of movements. It begins with a splendid Overture whose extent and confidence, though not range and scale of orchestration, looks forward to the Overture of the Fireworks Music. Kallweit makes its Introduction regal and beaming, yet with a fair flow, timing at 1:14 of the total 5:51, so the demi and hemidemisemiquaver rising flourishes heard in violins, oboes, and string bass, are quite crisp. Then the Allegro main body really skips in jubilation as the second violins and oboes start and are then echoed by the firsts. There’s great clarity of texture, so the contrast of sustained notes and highly rhythmic changes of notes can be enjoyed. The slow movement again features an oboe solo over strings, but this time the strings have a gentle, comely, yet independent dance with which the oboe merges, sometimes with overlaid sustained notes, but often doubling the strings. Notwithstanding this equality, the oboe resumes star billing in its fine elaboration of the Adagio transitional passage (from tr. 14, 1:40) to the Allegro next movement which is lightly fugal while Kallweit’s niftiness enjoys the interchange of instrumental solos and tuttis. The Allegro finale is in Minuet style and Kallweit’s spruceness here takes away something of its proud strut while still honouring its confidence. Its ‘Trio’ has the fun of two simultaneous tunes, the main one in the second violins, violas and bassoon, while the first violins and oboes have an urbane, complementary counter-tune and you’re likely to remember such a practice in the G major suite of the Water Music. Kallweit expands the movement’s variety by contrasting solo instruments and tutti in the repeats of the Minuet.

Mortensen’s Overture, the fastest of the three recordings compared, the Introduction taking 1:07 of the whole 5:48, is freshly formal, not as smiling as Kallweit’s, yet with more pride in its strut, while his demi and hemidemisemiquaver flourishes are, very dapper. His Allegro section isn’t quite as buoyant as Kallweit’s, yet it’s convivial and his contrasts of texture are equally clear. Mortensen’s strings’ dance in the slow movement is friskier than Kallweit’s, and his oboe solo comfortably overlayers it with judicious ornamentation and takes a more florid approach than Kallweit’s oboist to the Adagio transitional passage. Clarity of articulation is again the emphasis of Mortensen’s Allegro fugal movement. His Allegro finale is bubbling, the appoggiaturas lightly applied, its Trio’s main theme pleasantly nonchalant.

Lamon’s Overture is the slowest of the three recordings compared, taking 1:21 for the Introduction and 6:04 for the whole. Its heavier articulation creates a comfortably relaxed yet majestic feel to the proceedings. However, that heavier articulation doesn’t suit the strings’ dance in the slow movement which gives the impression of sludge through which the oboe is trying to glide. Lamon omits the fugal movement, but her Allegro finale has a breezy chutzpah, implied by its trills and attractive in its own terms, while the two tunes in the Trio are firmly balanced.

What, then, is my conclusion having heard my selected concertos from three interpreters? The differences between them aren’t major, but overall, I’d say this latest SACD by Kallweit is the most attractive period instrument account in the clearest recording.

Michael Greenhalgh

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