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Handel: Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - Gester

Handel: Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - Gester

BIS  BIS-SACD-1705/06 (3 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical


Handel: 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6

Arte dei Suonatori
Martin Gester (conductor)


Although it was in the field of opera that Handel had first made his mark when arriving in London in the early 18th Century, the high costs of producing operas made it an uncertain one. By the 1730s Handel therefore began to explore other possibilities. It is in this context that the Concerti grossi Op. 6 may be seen.

Composed during a few hectic weeks in the autumn of 1739, the set was partly intended by Handel – renowned mainly as a writer for singers and as an organist – to reinforce his stature as an instrumental composer. It would seem to have been a success: even before publication, Twelve Grand Concerto’s compos’d by Mr. Handel – as they were advertised in the press – had been sold in 122 copies to 100 subscribers, including Handel’s royal pupils, the princesses Anne, Amelia, Caroline, Mary and Louisa, as well as their brother, the Duke of Cumberland. In choosing to publish the concerti in a set of twelve, and adopting the set-up of a concertino group of two violins and one cello, contrasting with the tutti ensemble, Handel followed the tradition established by Arcangelo Corelli, whose hugely influential set of Concerti grossi Op. 6 had been published in 1714.

What Handel added to the Corellian concerto was a distinctly dramatic quality – not surprisingly for the great operatic composer – as well as elements of the French-German suite tradition – in keeping with his own origins. The result is music that exhibits a great variety of musical thought and invention, here interpreted by the highly acclaimed Polish ensemble Arte dei Suonatori making their third recording for BIS. The recordings are the fruit of a regular collaboration between the ensemble and French conductor Martin Gester, focussing on the baroque concerto.

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Review by John Miller - November 17, 2008

I have to agree with a remark in the authoritative notes for this set that Handel's Op. 6 Concerti Grossi are the composer's finest instrumental works, ranking alongside JS Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at the zenith of the High Baroque. Inspired by Corelli's set, Handel's 12 concertos are unfailingly and astonishingly imaginative, with seemingly inexhaustible fertility of invention. A concertante (solo) group of two violins and two cellos, and a supporting group of strings and continuo (ripieno) makes up the band, and the concertos are collections of up to 6 short pieces, mainly dances of various types, some of them specified, such as Polonaise, Gigue, Musette, Minuet, Siciliana and Hornpipe. Handel seems to have had a direct line to Terpsichore when composing, just as did Arte dei Suonatori when producing this marvellous performance.

Usually, the Op. 6 concertos fit onto two discs, but in this boxed set there are three (for the price of two). The reason for this is that the tempi set by director Martin Gester are often somewhat more relaxed than on other sets (which can sometimes seem overdriven at times). More importantly, Arte dei Suonatori are most generous in their offering of delectably varied repeats. Thus the last disc contains two of the concerti. However, tempi in this set never seem sluggish in any way, and the whole impression is of vividly crisp dynamic and lilting playing, seemingly as natural as the wind. Solos are played with virtuosic élan and considerable wit, and they make a vibrant dialogue with the ripieno group, which is the whole point of the concerto grosso form.

Arte dei Suonatori's violins have a bright silvery sound; middle and lower strings are trenchant in the rosiny sound of their gut stringing. The group's ensemble has pinpoint precision, with violins divided left and right to make the most of Handel's antiphonal fun. A major feature of this set is the parity of the continuo group with the rest of the performers. Too often they are discreetly relegated to the back of the ensemble, but BIS's impeccable recording lets one hear the harpsichord, organ, archlute and theorbo contributions clearly. Their players add attractive but never fussy comments and ornamentations at suitable moments, all perfectly HIP. This adds considerably to the tonal colour of these concertos and contributes to the glowing personality of their performance. At every turn of the page in the score, there are new and often astonishing effects, sumptuous melodies or dramatically surprising contrasts. Despite there being only one double bass, there is plenty of resonant support from the hall, which combines with the low cellos and the long strings of the archlute to give a richly sonorous deep foundation for the band.

This collection of the traditional dozen concertos was never intended to be listened to as a complete sequence, but I found myself unable to stop until the last notes had sounded. Just about everything sounds natural and right here, and for lifting the spirits, this set is better than a bottle of tonic. The recording is one of the best from BIS, with a measured amount of ambience from the Radio Hall in Wroclaw, Poland and a perfectly focussed, wide sound stage which matches the session photo in the booklet perfectly. This issue has gone to the top of my personal list of Best Recordings of 2008, and I urge lovers of Baroque music to acquire it, even if they already have an Op.6 set.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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