Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op. 2 (CD review)

Also, Passacaille. The Brook Street Band. Avie AV2282.

First, a word about the performers: The Brook Street Band is a group of four female musicians, frequently augmented by two or more additional players, who took their name from the London residence of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). It’s no wonder, then, that they specialize in the composer’s work and, in a nod to authenticity, play on period instruments. The Brook Street players are Rachel Harris and Farran Scott, baroque violins; Tatty Theo, who founded the group at The Queen's College, Oxford in 1995, baroque cello; Carolyn Gibley, harpsichord; and guest Lisete da Silva, flute and recorder.

Next, a word about the music: Generally speaking, composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote trio sonatas for two solo instruments plus a keyboard continuo; thus, a trio. Nevertheless, the continuo often embraced several instruments (like a bass violin or cello and some keyboard instrument like a harpsichord); so trio sonatas in actual practice can involve more than a specific disposal of instruments, particularly given that some early published editions indicate duplicate parts for the bass.

And even more about the music: Handel probably composed his six Opus 2 Trio Concertos around 1718, although he never published them immediately, and no manuscript copy exists. Nor can scholars pinpoint the exact order of their composition, despite their numbering. The present set begins with Sonata No. 3 in B flat, as good a start as any, and places No. 1 in B minor second to last. All of the sonatas alternate four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement, a pattern known as “da chiesa” (literally, “from church”). However, Handel never intended them for church service. Instead, he probably meant them merely as domestic chamber music for small gatherings, dinners, or entertainment at various London pleasure gardens.

Whatever, The Brook Street Band play them with delicacy in the slower movements and verve in the faster ones. A look at the Sonata No. 3 in B flat provides a good example. The opening Andante flows smoothly along, the instruments intertwining and interacting effortlessly in continuously graceful motions. It is both stately and comforting at the same time. The second-movement Allegro advances at a quicker, contrasting pace, yet the Band never take it so fast as to sound breathlessly exaggerated. Instead, it blends nicely with the other movements. The following Larghetto comes up sweetly inflected, never dragging, always moving forward at a light but steady gait, with some beautiful interplay among the performers. The sonata concludes with an elegantly high-stepping Allegro that brings the piece to a thrilling close.

The Brook Street Band is a group that apparently believes music should be played to be heard and enjoyed rather than fawned over for the virtuosity of its rapid-fire execution. This is music for the sake of music, not for the sake of the musicians playing it. That is to say, while the musicians are clearly virtuosos, they never draw attention to themselves at the expense of the music.

And so it goes throughout the six sonatas, each of them sounding poised and pointed, the bonus Passacaille at the end of the program uniting all of the players in a delightful little number. Even though Handel probably didn't intend for folks to listen to these works with the utmost attention, the Band force us to take notice with their joyful, precise, and accomplished musicianship. Handel was, after all, writing the pieces almost as background music, knowing full well his listeners would be eating, talking, or socializing while the music played, just as most listeners today go about their daily chores while music plays. So, Handel probably didn't mean these numbers as the concert-hall material we view them as today. Yet the Band play them as stand-alone concert pieces and demand our attentiveness through the spirit and accuracy of their approach.

What's more, by varying the instrumentation from one sonata to the next, the Band make each sonata sound new and fresh. This is especially important as Handel tended to reuse much of his own work, meaning that for many of us today who have heard a good deal of Handel, it could otherwise get a tad repetitious. It doesn't. The Brook Street Band ensures that their felicitous playing keeps everything innovative and alive. They're fun to listen to.

Simon Fox-Gal produced, engineered, and edited the album in February and March, 2013 at Raveningham Church, Norfolk, England. As with most Avie releases, this one sounds quite detailed, although it also appears rather closely miked. The musicians seem only a few feet away, and I'm not sure what occasion might prompt such proximity. In any case, there's a light ambient glow around the notes that precludes their being too hard or edgy at such a distance. Otherwise, expect reasonably quick transient attack times and a generally warm, natural response.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa