By John J. Puccio
This is not to suggest, however, that the Akademie fur Alte Musik are in any way dull or commonplace. Far from it, as these performances of Handel’s Op. 3 concertos demonstrate. The concertos are clear, focused, and meticulously presented in interpretations both lively and graceful. It’s a refreshing combination.
Anyway, the German-born Baroque composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote his six Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 sometime before 1734, when English music publisher John Walsh assembled them from earlier Handel works. Apparently, Handel himself had no intention when he wrote them of their becoming a “set,” nor did he have any idea beforehand what Walsh was up to with them. But have them we do. What’s more, they aren’t “concertos” in the modern sense at all, but rather they are mostly collections of overtures, fugues, dances, and the like arranged into suites of anywhere from two to five movements each. Handel did not design any of them to highlight individual instruments, either, or even to contrast different sections of the orchestra as do most traditional concerti grossi. But Walsh, wanting to capitalize on the popularity of concerti sets of the day compiled them from whatever bits and pieces of Handel’s music he could find. No matter. Much of it remains charming.
Maestro Kallweit and the Akademie play with a refined sensibility, somewhat understated on occasion but lively and brisk at other times. The first of the six concertos makes a good example of this. There are three movements to it: fast, slow, fast. And there is no doubting which is which because the fast movements sparkle with energy, while the slow movement, the Largo, is meaningfully leisurely.
Of the concertos I liked best, No. 2 is probably my favorite. It’s one of the longest at five movements, and each of the sections is clearly distinctive from the rest. Musical scholars have suggested that Handel may have written the whole thing as an overture; who knows. It certainly has all the earmarks of a curtain raiser and may easily be savored as a stand-alone item.
And so it goes. Nos. 3 and 5 both open with Largos, making them a bit different. However, the movements are generally so brief, it’s hard to notice. No. 4 seems the most grandiose, No. 5 the most grave. No. 6, the final concerto, seems almost an afterthought. It has only two movements, and it seems that the publisher simply wanted a concluding sixth work in the set because that was the fashion of the times. In any case, it is distinguished by an organ part in the last movement that foreshadows Handel’s later, more-developed organ concertos.
Producers Renaud Loranger and Karel Bruggeman and engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the concerti at the Nikodemuskirche, Berlin in May 2019. They made it in hybrid SACD, and I listened in SACD two-channel stereo. There’s more ambient bloom in the auditorium than we normally here, making the relatively small ensemble appear bigger than it is. It is not unpleasant. Otherwise, the sound is smooth and agreeable. You might even be hard pressed to tell it’s a period band and not a modern chamber orchestra because of the polished sheen of the sonics. It’s also a tad close, with only moderate depth. Nevertheless, it’s all quite listenable.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: