HANDEL: Concerti grossi Op. 6; Concerti grossi Op. 3; Organ Concertos Op. 4 – The Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze & Richard Egarr, directors (Egarr, organ in Op. 4) – Harmonia mundi 4 CD box set HMX 2908292 *****:
Getting a jump on next year’s 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), Harmonia mundi has assembled five outstanding mid-priced boxed sets consisting of from four to nine CDs of Handel classics from their catalog. Organization is by genre: Operas, Oratorios, two sets of Arias, and this collection of the composer’s two big concerti grossi sets plus the earliest set of his delightful organ concerti.
The other four boxes in the entire set are a fine testament to the composer’s brilliance with operatic and vocal music, but I leaned toward the collection’s concertos set. Everything in the various sets has been previously released by HM, and the sparkling performance of the Opus 3 concerti was previously released as a single SACD by HM.
The richness of invention and versatility of these six concertos is quite astonishing. The Op. 3 set is filled out with the Sonata a 5, which features a solo violin in its three movements. Sonics are high quality though not of SACD level, and the performances are more sprightly and energetic than the competing version I had on the Archive label. The later Op. 6 concertos are 12 in number and range in structure from four to six movements each. They are sometimes compared to Bach’s Brandenburgs as the epitome of the baroque period concerto form. One would never realize that Handel turned out these works at a very rapid pace, they sound so perfectly formed. The church of St. John in London, where the recording was made, ties in with the time of Handel and is a perfect acoustic for these historic works.
The story is that when Handel first visited Italy a cardinal there set up a sort of “cutting contest” between him and Domenico Scarlatti (they were both born the same year). The verdict was that though Scarlatti was superior on the harpsichord, Handel won on the organ. His organ concerti are full of detailed ornamentation. Conductor and organist Egarr brought in a baroque guitar to add to the instrumentation of the last two concertos. The final one was originally a concerto for harp, so the guitar fits well here. Overall, the performances – which are available on a couple of SACD versions – have more snap and crackle than the PentaTone series I have reviewed previously, though not in the hi-res surround format.
– John Sunier