“A supremely crafted treasure trove of delightful surprises” is how David Vickers describes these pieces in his excellent essay in the booklet accompanying this very fine new set of SACDs from BIS.
Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), or George Frideric Handel, wrote these “Twelve Grand Concertos” between 29 September and 30 October 1739 for a series of concerts of English works that November and early in 1740 in London. Handel, by this time, had been settled in London for some twenty years, sixteen of them in his Brook Street house, now a museum open to the public, and had become a naturalised British subject. The twelve concerti grossi were to stand comparison with those by Vivaldi and Corelli, and show Handel’s proficiency as a composer of orchestral music.
Those familiar with Beecham’s arrangements of Handel’s music for ballets will recognise some of the material. Others will notice he uses occasionally material from other works; for example, the ninth is based on the organ concerto known as “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” and several movements in other concertos are based on themes by Muffat.
The orchestra here is quite small in number, about fifteen players, and produces a wide dynamic range in these performances, with clarity and superb ensemble. Continuo from harpsichord or organ provided by Martin Gester, who conducts from the keyboard, and Andreas Arend’s archlute and theorbo add distinctive colour to the sound. The concerti themselves have such delicacy in the dance movements, and a wide variety of moods elsewhere, from the sad siciliana to the most effervescent of optimism in some of the allegros. This set uses three discs, as do several sets, partly due to some properly slow tempi in the slow movements, and partly not passing up on repeats, but is priced as a two-disc set.
Trevor Pinnock’s excellent set on period instruments on DGG Archiv still sounds well in comparison, and I must confess a liking for a very different and earlier approach, too, from Boyd Neel, now available for download from Naxos Archive; those who insist on hearing modern instruments will probably stick with the excellent Sir Neville Marriner. However, this new set with its clear approach on period instruments and surround sound is, for me, a decided joy. Samples are available for tasting on BIS’s website!
Arte dei Suonatori will be well known to some readers as the orchestra for Channel Classics’ recording of Vivaldi’s Op.4, “La Stravaganza”, another set of twelve concerti, and for BIS’s Op. 8 1-4 with Dan Laurin. They do these twelve concerti proud, and coupled with the first-rate high resolution sound on these SACDs from BIS, have given me enormous pleasure listening over the past three weeks.
— Peter Joelson