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Handel's Memories: A selection from Grand Concertos Op. 6 - Banzo

Handel's Memories: A selection from Grand Concertos Op. 6 - Banzo

Challenge Classics  CC 72548 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Handel: 6 Concerto Grossi Op. 6

Al Ayre Español
Eduardo López Banzo, conductor & harpsichord


Something new and something borrowed. In the days that Handel lived, it was common to use an existing melody and make it your own. Handel's Grand Concertos contains a surprising quantity of newly composed material, as well as some borrowings, such as the memories or musical anecdotes, written with intense lyricism and certain sentimentality, previously absent from his instrumental music. His “operatic” Concerto No. 8, written in the ill-natured, though also lovely, tonality of C minor, is one of the most dramatic in the collection, and concurrently possesses one of the most interesting structures. It starts with a movement based on the main motif of an allemande – “a German piece” – by Johann Mattheson, published in his Pièces de clavecin (London, 1714, the same year as Corelli’s concerts).

The Componimenti Musicali by Gottlieb Theophil Muffat, with whom the German composer exchanged music during the 1730s, provide Handel with some ideas from which he builds formidable orchestral movements in these concertos. “He takes other men's pebbles and polishes them into diamonds”, the British composer William Boyce used to say of him. It could not be more true when we observe the use Handel makes of these and other loans. Al Ayre Espanol with this performance makes us aware of the sheer beauty of this music, which always turns into gold in the hands of master Handel: new or borrowed. Grand concertos grandly performed!

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DSD recording

Northstar, DSD, 2-5 December 2011
Auditorio de El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Producer/Balance Engineer - Bert van der Wolf
Reviews (1)
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Review by John Miller - November 26, 2012

It isn't absolutely clear, but I suspect that Handel's Memories referred to in the title are those recalling his friends and fellow composers who unknowingly supplied the "borrowed" themes to be worked into his set of Concerti Grossi Op. 6. This magnificent late work was penned in 1739, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Archangelo Corelli's ground-breaking set of twelve Concerti Grossi.

Handel had worked with Corelli in Rome, and returning to orchestral music from his long spells composing opera and oratorios, he must have felt that composing his own set of Concerti was something of an homage. Unlike the Op. 3 set of concerti, which was dominated by the oboe, the Op. 6 set is for string band and continuo. Considering the amazing quality of this work, it is remarkable how fast Handel set it down; it took only a short month of Autumn 1739, with publication following in 1740. And although there was quite a lot of recycling of his own music as well as that of others (a common practice in a world with no copyright regulations), much of it was completely new.

Al Ayre Español is one of the foremost period instrument bands on the world stage, specialising in Spanish Baroque music. In this case, their period instrument string section comprises 9 violins (including 2 concertino players, i.e. soloists), 3 violas, 2 cellos and 1 violone (bass viol). The violone plays the continuo part, aided by a theorbo (very large lute) and harpsichord, where two models, one Italian and another German 2-manual are used depending on the character of the music. The Director and Conductor, Eduardo López Banzo, plays the harpsichord and conducts from the keyboard.

Most of recordings of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi are of the full cycle of 12 concerti, which fill 3 discs if all the repeats are played (as they should be). There are, however, some "bargain" selections, on one or two discs. But there is nothing 'bargain' about Al Ayre Español's offering; they have something wonderful and intense to say about these top-class Handel pieces and give performances which are dazzling in characterization and brilliant in execution. The period violin tone, despite sparing vibrato, is full-bodied and fluent, and the continuo group provides a sonorous bass line over which the other strings weave their magic. While maintaining the grace and elegance of Baroque manners, Al Ayre Español extract the maximum of drama and humour implied in Handel's scores, with tempi which let the music breathe (and sing) but have springy rhythms. Soloists quite often add discreet but seemingly spontaneous ornaments, as is Baroque performance practise. These are charming, tasteful and help the repeat sections change character. Eduardo López Banzo's harpsichord continuo is balanced very well in the ensemble, never overstating but nipping in and out of the textures like an affectionate terrier.

Playing of such panache and transparency deserves a superb recording, and that is precisely what Northstar Recording Services provide. Their pure DSD capture comes from just 5 Sonodore microphones around and over the ensemble, on a platform in the Auditorio de El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, not far from Madrid. Listening to the 5.1 multichannel track is thrilling, with the solidity of the sonic image placing the ensemble within a conductor's viewpoint. The double centre page of the booklet is devoted to session photos, and the well prepared booklet texts in English and Spanish neatly put the Concerti in historical context.

While I am still very happy with the full set of Handel's Op. 6 from BIS (Handel: Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - Gester) and Challenge Records new full set by Combattimento (Handel: Concerti Grossi Op. 6 - de Vriend), Al Ayre Español's selection is something very special and not to be missed, even if you already have several versions of Handel's Concerti Grossi Op. 6. It comes, in addition, with a deeply involving recording of demonstration class. An absolute must-have for Handel fans and Baroque music lovers; once you start listening, you will have to listen until the end.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net