HANDEL: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3; Sonata a 5 (HWV 288) – Academy of Ancient Music/ Richard Egarr, conductor – Harmonia mundi

by | Feb 27, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HANDEL: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3; Sonata a 5 (HWV 288) – Academy of Ancient Music/ Richard Egarr, conductor – Harmonia mundi USA HMU 907415, 68:04 ****:

Handel’s Opus 3 has always presented textual difficulties—John Walsh, his publisher, was known in his time to take great liberties in terms of textual accuracy, even accused of pirating and other underhanded practices that netted him, according to some estimates, a fortune of about 40 thousand pounds. Pretty good pocket change in those days!

But even though, as has been surmised, Walsh’s collection of Handelian material that eventually comprised this opus was probably not done with the composer’s approval (as his opus 6 concerti grossi definitely was), it is another thing altogether to assume that the composer would have been upset with Walsh’s practice in this case. Handel was an eminently practical man, and a sale of any type would have been important to him, so if Walsh decided to assemble a miscellany of concertos under one title, so be it. Yet at the same time, this assemblage has cause musicologists great dismay and not a little perplexity in deciding exactly how this music should be performed, riddled as it is with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

I don’t have space for an analysis of all the problems here, so I will focus on only one: Concerto 6. Walsh put together two movements, an orchestral movement in D major, and an organ concerto in D minor, never performed together as far as we know. The opera Ottone (1722) included some of this music from the last movement in its overture, and the first movement was taken in entirety as a “battle symphony” in Act 1. The last movement of the concerto would be the first known published organ concerto movement. Why we don’t know; perhaps (as it is based on earlier musical material) it was used in another opera or oratorio. In any case, it seems unlikely that this concerto in this form was originally conceived by Handel, but lacking any credible evidence we cannot know for sure, except on purely musical grounds.

Richard Egarr seems to reject this thesis of non-Handelian approval, or at least acknowledgment. Basing his belief on the fact that Handel always seemed to be in constant communication with Walsh, he goes with the theory of Handelian origin in the sixth concerto. This seems to me unlikely, as the concerto as such is only two movements, and its D major/D minor makeup is a little strange to say the least, so much so that Egarr adds an organ ad libitum between the two movements to serve as a transition. But as I said, with no proof available, his solution certainly has merit.

I have always been fond of the 1989 recording on period instruments by Christopher Hogwood with the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. That was the first recording to restore the Opus 3:6 concerto in its rightful place, and Hogwood’s arguments for doing so are to me almost unassailable—few people are as Handel-savvy as he. He appends the D minor organ concerto at the end of the recording. The sound on that release was clean and rather dry, and Hogwood used more than double the number of violins (and other strings) than on this current recording (which uses 6 violins). It set a benchmark for me, though some have complained (rightfully) that the tone of the Handel and Haydn Society is not as fresh and manicured as some of the other period groups. Nevertheless, it is a superb reading.

But so is Egarr’s. What is remarkable is the sound—full of depth and lush-sounding bass that is absent on the Hogwood. And this with fewer instruments! It just goes to show how important recording technique and venue are these days. You can feel the presence of the instruments here in a way that you cannot on the L’Oiseau-Lyre recording, a palpable and rich presence that adds greatly to our perception of these works. Interpretatively it is pretty much of a draw—sometimes Hogwood is slightly faster in some movements while Egarr proves quicker in others—both are valid and perfectly conformable to musical good taste.

As a bonus Egarr give us the Sonata a 5, a five-part orchestral sonata by the 22-year old composer that is a stunning treatment of the form. Whatever John Walsh’s motives, we certainly owe him a lot for this magnificent collection, composer-approved or no. While I certainly could not do without Hogwood’s perception and intellect, Harmonia mundi has given us a strong contender in smartly contemporary sound that will be sure to please almost anyone.

— Steven Ritter 

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