Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 (SACD review)

Georg Kallweit, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Pentatone PTC 5186 776.

By John J. Puccio

If you enjoy music of the Baroque and Classical ages played with elegance and refinement in historically informed performances, you might just like the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, a German, period-instrument ensemble formed in 1982 that plays with a smooth precision and style. While they may not display the abandon of, say, Le Concert des Nations or Europa Galante nor with the sheer joy of the Philharmonia Baroque, the Akademie make up for it with the effortless polish of professionals who know and love their business and aren’t afraid of showing a little restraint in the process.

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.

Of course, Handel admirers coming to this music for the first time and expecting to find another set of Water Music suites may be disappointed. There just isn’t the abundance of memorable tunes involved. Instead, we have mainly bits and pieces of Handel kind of thrown together to sell copies of the scores. And, of course, listeners not already familiar with Handel’s music may not care one way or the other because it probably all sounds alike to them anyway. But that is not to say there isn’t a lot to appreciate in the Akademie’s view of things, and I rather enjoyed some of “the bits and pieces.”

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.

JJP

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

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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.

Mission Statement

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