HANDEL: Concerti Grossi, Opus 6 – The Avison Ensemble/ Pavlo Beznosiuk – Linn Records multichannel SACD CKD 362 (3 discs) 60:03, 59:46, 40:49 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
George Frideric Handel composed his two most famous concerti grossi – Op. 3 and Op. 6 – for playing during performances of his oratorios and odes. They were based on the older concerto da chiesa and the chamber concerto style of Corelli rather than the three-movement concerto style favored by Vivaldi. They are mostly new material, and display a wide variety of styles, including trio sonatas, French overtures, Italian sinfonias, airs, arias, fugues, theme and variations, and many different dance forms. These are both considered some of the best examples of the Baroque concerto grosso – right up there with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti as the greatest examples of instrumental works of the High Baroque.
Handel was clearly under the influence of Corelli, because he not only followed his style, writing a dozen concerti all in different keys, but even made them the same opus number Corelli has used. The instrumentation is also the same as Corelli: a concertino of two violins and cello, supported by four-part strings and continuo Two of the concerti are reworkings of Handel’s organ concerti, including the one nicknamed “the Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” All have five or six movements, the first of which is usually of a very regal nature.
The Avison Ensemble is based at Newcastle in the UK and is one of the country’s foremost exponents of 18th century music played on period instruments. It is named after the 18th century composer Charles Avison who was born in Newcastle. The ensemble is made up of four 1st violins, four 2nd violins, two violas, two celli, a doublebass and harpsichord. The performers are all highly skilled and Linn’s multichannel recording does them full justice. There is great clarity of the string tone and the balance with the harpsichord is just right.
There are two other SACD versions of the Op. 6 concerti but I haven’t heard them. If only Richard Egarr’s recording with the Academy of Ancient Music were available on SACD there would be quite some competition here, but it was released only on CD, and only his version of Op. 3 is on a Harmonia mundi SACD. Some of the standard CD versions fit Op. 6 onto just two instead of three discs, but in spite of the additional cost of this new SACD set, it gets my vote for a magnificent realization of this important set of works.
– John Sunier