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:


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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa