Handel: Concerti grossi, Op. 6 (SACD review)

Jan Willem de Vriend, Combattimento Consort Amsterdam. Challenge Classics CC72570 (3-disc set).

The concerto grosso (or “grand concerto”) was an important type of Baroque concerto, characterized by the playing of a small group of solo instruments against the full orchestra. The form originated somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century and eventually evolved into the traditional concerto and symphony we know today.

German-born composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), who spent most of his life in England, published his twelve Concerti grossi in 1739, originally writing them to be played during his oratorios and odes, usually between acts, meant to sort of break up the continual singing, in the manner of an entr’acte. I suspect he also inserted them into his choral works to show off his versatility as a composer. Maestro Jan Willem de Vriend leads the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam (a chamber group of several dozen or so players at any given time) in spirited readings of all twelve works in this three-disc set.

Each of the twelve concerti grossi contains from four to six movements, most of them beginning with largos or larghettos. According to their publication dates, Bach seems to have written them over a remarkably short period of time; however, since he borrowed a good deal of material from himself (and others), the dates are probably misleading. This is not to suggest there isn’t a lot of purely original ideas here, too; you just have to understand that reusing older compositions in newer settings was commonplace in those days.

Still, the music’s the thing, and these performances from De Vriend and the Combattimento Consort, stylish and imaginative, are as good as they get. Each Concerto grosso is clearly different in character from all the others, and De Vriend makes sure the listener appreciates those differences. He varies tempos and sustains lively rhythms just enough to make his case without resorting to exaggeration. He always maintains a sprightly bounce in the faster movements while keeping a refined, sometimes stately pace in the slower sections. I have to admit, however, that there were a few times when I wished De Vriend would have eased up just a little on the forward drive and momentum; a little energy is good, but so is a little repose. Be that as it may, this is but a minor concern in a set so well considered.

In all, I found the ever-so-brief Concerto grosso No. 4 coming off well for its quiet, bittersweet dignity; and the much longer, more French and Italian-influenced No. 5 coming off nicely in a stately, ceremonial manner. No. 6 is not as dark as I’ve heard it performed, which can be good or bad depending on your expectations. No. 8 seems the best example of any of the pieces for showing off Handel’s versatility and creativity, as well as displaying the individual talents of the Combattimento Consort. Nonetheless, my favorite among all twelve of the Concerti grossi is No. 12. Maybe Handel was saving his best stuff for last, I don’t know. But the music has always moved me, and I greatly enjoyed De Vriend’s sensible yet stimulating approach to it.

Northstar Recording Services recorded the music in 2011 at the Muziekcentrum Enschede, Netherlands. Producer and engineer Bert van der Wolf used the “High Quality Musical Surround Mastering principle” in making this hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD. The basis of the recording principle offers “a realistic and holographic 3 dimensional representation of the musical instruments, voices and recording venue, according to traditional concert practice. For most older music this means a frontal representation of the musical performance, but such that width and depth of the ensemble and acoustic characteristics of the hall resemble ‘real life’ as much as possible.” I suppose that means it helps to listen to these discs in full 5.1 surround sound from an SACD player to take complete advantage of the principle, but I did just fine with an SACD player and two-channel stereo.

So, anyway, how does it sound? Well, the sonics may be a tad bright or forward if your speakers are at all bright or forward. Otherwise, there is little to complain about. It’s fairly close-up, very clear, very well detailed, yet there is also a good degree of depth to the small ensemble. Dynamics are strong, adding to the sense of realism. Perhaps of greatest importance, the stereo spread extends almost but not quite from speaker to speaker, so there isn’t just a long line of instruments in front of you. Although the acoustic is not over-resonant, it does provide a warm, pleasing glow around the notes, which never disturbs the sound’s transparency. Played at an appropriate volume level for this type of music, the experience can be entirely natural and will have you sitting in the audience, it sounds so good.

The three discs come handsomely packaged in a double jewel box, with a slipcover for the case and an enclosed booklet of extensive notes.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa