The aural delights abound in Handel’s settings for duo-wind choirs, rendered expertly by the Freiburg ensemble. 

HANDEL: Concerti a Due Cori = F Major, HWV 334; B-flat Major, HWV 332; F Major, HWV 333 – Freiburger Barockorchester/ Gottfried von der Goltz and Petra Muellejans – Harmonia mundi HMM 905272, 48:54 (2/9/18) ****:

Handel had a tendency to compose music that would occupy and entertain audiences who came specifically to hear his own works.  Many of his concertos mean to serve as appetizers for his major vocal compositions, oratorios and concert versions of operas. Those Concerti a Due Cori recorded here (10-12 October 2014) were the products of the Covent Garden oratorio seasons, 1747/48. Handel rescored excerpts of his oratorios for double wind choirs and strings, wonderful “preludes” for the exciting vocal performances about to be engaged by an equally multifarious group of musicians. At the time, extra wind players were in abundance, especially after the 1745 suppression of the Jacobite rising and the disbanding of what had become surplus military bands.

The B-flat Concerto, HWV 332 likely accompanied the premiere of the oratorio Joshua 9 March 1748.  The Ouverture no less advertises Alexander Balus, to be premiered two weeks after Joshua. Eschewing the pomp of a French overture and its fugal evolution, Handel segues into an orchestration of Messiah’s “And the glory of the Lord,” having given the vocal parts to the woodwinds.  The brisk virtuosity of the playing creates a whirlwind effect, aerial and pointed with ripe turns and ornaments. Antiphons bounce back and across over a busy continuo line, punctuated by blazing wind accents. A violin solo (Petra Muellejans) takes us to the third movement, the opening chorus from Balshazzar, Part 2, a depiction of the rushing waters of the Euphrates. The slow movement recalls the opera Ottone di Germania, and then Handel continues with a chorus from Semele for movements five and six. Handel has delayed the fugue intentionally, which he now complements with a Minuet, whose melos had originated in the opera Lotario.  The musical pastiche proves so seamless and juicily pompous we hardly know whether to compliment or berate the composer for his suave self-aggrandizement.

The Concerto in F Major, HWV 333 meant to accompany Alexander Balus on 23 March 1748 at Covent Garden. Handel adds two horns to each of the wind choirs so to deepen the antiphonal response. Handel employs tropes from his first English opera Esther, with the high-flown French overture on “Jehovah is crowned” is blazing antiphons, followed by an Allegro, brass-laden and rife with rushing strings. More than a shade of the Water Music bursts through. “Lift up your heads” from Messiah informs the third movement, whose four high horns contribute a definitive luster to the whole. An exception moment occurs in the slow movement in minor, which borrows from Esther a siciliano which the Freiburg oboes exploit with sinuous grace. Handel then delves into his musical past, retrieving a ground bass from his 1713 Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, utilizing a percussive theme reminiscent of a Vivaldi tune from Venice.  Winds and brass combine for musical largesse of true Handelian magnitude. Two oboes help deliver the spiky, virtuoso momentum for the final Allegro, with the orchestra’s having borrowed a secure chorus from the Occasional Oratorio.

The F Major Concerto, HWV 334 represents Handel’s earliest effort, having been given in concert with Judas Maccabeus at Covent Garden in April 1747.  Sheer musical originality and invention rule here: Handel obviously seized the chance to display his antiphonal skills, here using tunes from his Fitzwilliam Overture HWV 424 (c. 1741). The first Allegro synthesizes arpeggios in the horns with counterpoints in the two wind choirs. The strings maintain the main melody, with their sonority doubled by low bassoons. The two wind choirs argue in the third movement, rather briskly, I might add. The strings toss in their two cents at the end, the whole eminently dramatic. Two dignified, vocal movements ensue, Adagio and Andante larghetto, each rife with the grace we know from the Water Music.  Suddenly, Handel opts for the unbridled joie de vive of the gigue in his last movement, Allegro, which exploits in bold colors music from the off-beat comedy Partenope (1730), here rife with hunting horn, triumphant colors.

—Gary Lemco