Handel: Concerti grossi

Handel: Concerti grossi Vol 2. Opus 6: 7-12
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck
Pentatone PTC 5186 738. 80’29

Although the concept and the inspiration for Handel’s Op.6 Concerti grossi date back to his early years in Italy and Corelli’s concerto da chiesa and concerto da camera, they were put together and published much later in his career. Ten of the 12 concertos were composed for performance during oratorios and odes during the 1739–1740 season. These included the two that were performed on St Cecilia’s Day, during Alexander’s Feast and the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Others followed in December and February 14 including two during L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato with two more in March and April in revivals of Saul, Israel in Egypt and L’Allegro. Concertos 9 and 11 borrowed from some of Handel’s earlier organ concertos (No.9 borrowing from the Cuckoo and the Nightingale organ concerto) that had fulfilled the same function as interval entertainment or musical add ons to oratorio performances.

This is the second recording from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and continues from their early release on Pentatone of the first six Op. 6 Concerti grossi which I wasn’t sent for review. It is difficult for 21st-century ears to imagine that music as accomplished as this would be used as something of a ‘filler’ during other performances.

Nowadays we happily buy recordings, or in less complicated days, go to concerts entirely made of pieces like this. But these are just one of many examples of music that has been lifted from relatively mundane original settings, to be set upon the world’s musical stage as masterpieces – Bach’s church cantatas spring to mind, churned out on a weekly basis to be performed and then stored away somewhere.

They vary in structure and character but are generally five to six movement works, usually under generic tempo titles with only the occasional specific dance movement. In this second set of six, they all open with a slow movement except No. 10 which opens with a full-blown French Ouverture. 

In a sort of reverse borrowing, Walsh re-published these in reductions of the score as the little-known ‘Second Set’ of organ concertos. Like his publications of the two better-known sets of Organ concertos for solo organ, they were almost certainly the way that most of the musical population, who didn’t get the chance to attend the London premieres,  got to hear these pieces, played by provincial organists.

The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin play with a refined sense of momentum and mood, eschewing the frenetic speeds and mannerisms of some of their competitors. In common with the current thinking of many in the historically informed performance world, they are happy to inject an element of affect into their playing, lifting the music from the page to the heart. A recording of the Op. 3 Concerti grossi will complete this trilogy.