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Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3, 4 & 6 / Manze, Egarr, Academy Of Ancient Music

Handel / Academy Of Ancient Music / Manze / Egarr
Release Date: 10/14/2008 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 2908292  
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Andrew ManzeRichard EgarrPavlo Beznosiuk
Conductor:  Andrew ManzeRichard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This set contains the following individual titles:

album cover Handel: Concerti Grossi Op 3 / Egarr, AAM

As Richard Egarr points out in his very intelligent notes to this terrific release (in what promises to be a new Handel cycle with the AAM), the Op. 3 Concerti grossi tend to get dismissed as compared with their larger Op. 6 brethren. But that doesn't mean that Handel didn't lavish great care on their composition (or assembly), and the fact that they consist mostly of arrangements
Read more or borrowings, as we all know, means nothing where Handel is concerned as a measure of quality. One of the nicest things about these performances is that Egarr makes no effort to homogenize what remains a wildly varied selection of movement types and formal structures. Just the opposite: he presents this music as a riot of color and individualized character.

Here are some of the highlights: Egarr offers the solo flute version of the Third Concerto rather than the more standard alternative for oboe, an excellent choice that both sets off this particular work and provides a welcome contrasting timbre if you are listening continuously. The French Overture opening of Concerto No. 4 really captures that wonderful sense of ceremony that Handel managed better than just about anyone else. Egarr also offers a delightful organ improvisation as the central movement of the Sixth Concerto (surely something belongs between the two that Handel actually wrote), and throughout the set he varies the continuo extremely effectively, nowhere more so than in the strikingly sensual Largo of the Second Concerto. The lively Sonata a 5, from Handel's early days in Italy, makes a fine bonus, and the whole production is superbly engineered and presented with Harmonia Mundi's usual care for every detail of production. It doesn't get any better.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

album cover Handel: Organ Concertos Op 4 / Egarr, AAM

Popular as they were as features of Handel's London performances--notably during intervals of his oratorios in the 1730s--these Op. 4 organ concertos present something of a dilemma for today's performers. It's not the music, for here are some of Handel's characteristically ravishing scores, with lovely, facile melodic writing, colorful, rich-textured orchestration, and buoyant rhythms. But most organs in England in the 1700s were rather modest by the standards of, say, those in northern and central Germany, and those that Handel would have used in theatres such as Covent Garden (one of the locations for his oratorios) were small- to medium-sized chamber organs with no pedals, one manual with relatively small compass, and, although varied in this regard, minimal stops and registration options.

The original idea of these concertos was to serve as a kind of "hook" to attract dwindling oratorio audiences, thus they were designed to give the soloist (Handel) a lot of room to ornament and otherwise show off his lauded technical skills and adeptness at invention. Handel's playing--not the organ's versatility or special attributes--was the attraction. (In fact, the title page for the original Op. 4 collection, published by John Walsh in 1738, confirms that these concertos were "for the harpsichord or organ." The last of the six was originally written for harp.)

As for listeners, although a warm, round flue or soft-edged reed stop makes an appealing enough sound, the fundamental lack of complexity makes a one-dimensional impression, especially when the solo instrument is contrasted with the orchestra. On a recording such as this, where we hear six concertos all played on the same 4-stop "mid-sized portativ organ", the quality of the sound, "wonderfully sweet and characteristically English" though it is, becomes too familiar and too similar.

Richard Egarr muses in his friendly and very entertaining notes that it "would have been lovely to provide the listener with a number of versions" of each concerto, with different ornamentation and improvisational bits; well, given the impracticality of that, I wonder if he couldn't instead have used two or three different organs, which would have struck a blow for authenticity (Handel would have played on different instruments at different times) and entertained listeners with more variety of voices and timbres, especially welcome over repeated hearings.

All of that aside, Egarr gives wonderful, insightful, technically solid performances, tending to Handelian authenticity with his free, fancy, and liberal use of ornamentation, enlivened with a real "in the moment" improvisational feel. Tempos are generally lively (but why are the listed track times so very far off?), articulation is clean, and coordination with the excellent orchestra usually spot-on (Egarr also conducts). There are, however, points of slight hesitations in tempo on Egarr's part that may be deliberate expressive devices but nevertheless interrupt the music's flow; perhaps a separate conductor would have helped in this regard.

For the last two concertos Egarr offers a serious nod to variety (and novelty) by altering the scoring to feature baroque guitar (in the fifth concerto) and performing the sixth concerto's original harp music on organ, combined with lute, muted violins, and pizzicato violas and lower strings. The sound, from London's St. Jude's-on-the-Hill, is ideal, and the whole production, from Egarr's notes to the vibrant performances, has an air of good spirits and ensemble camaraderie, a situation that Handel himself certainly would have envied.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

album cover Handel: Concerti Grossi Op 6 / Manze, AAM

These 12 concertos rank among the major pinnacles of the late Baroque. Handel wrote/recycled them (two borrow from earlier organ concertos) within a single month in 1739, for use in the theatre as interval pieces during oratorios. Since 1993 my benchmark has been Hogwood’s lean, athletic recording with the Handel & Haydn Society. He omits Handel’s oboes and bassoon (inserted later in concertos 1, 2, 5 and 6) and adds few frills. Despite a hard-etched recorded tone, much remains irresistible. Manze, by contrast, is irrepressible. His imagination, puckish wit and total absorption in the spirit of Handel is enthralling. He too omits wind, and also argues effectively for having no separate continuo instrument when soloists play alone: the textural contrasts with full orchestra are all the stronger. He plays constantly to the limits but, to my mind, never beyond them.

So the final Allegro of Concerto No. 11 is manically energetic; the pianissimo episodes in the angular fugue of Concerto No. 2 are lovingly caressed; ornaments sound spontaneous and are often breathtakingly virtuosic. Solo trio/tutti contrasts are vivid, with Manze, Peter Lissaur and David Watkin audibly forward of the orchestra – thoughtful engineering not quite matched by a touch over-weight bass and the odd editing blip. Standage and Collegium Musicum 90 are polished, stylish, and more respectful – they don’t live dangerously, as Manze does. They are, though, coloured with Handel’s optional wind, appearing on this last disc of three in the additional concerto Handel included in a performance of Alexander’s Feast.

-- George Pratt, BBC Music Magazine
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Works on This Recording

Concerti Grossi (12), Op. 6, HWV 319-330 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Andrew Manze (Violin)
Conductor:  Andrew Manze
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1739 
Concerti grossi (6), Op. 3/HWV 312-317 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Richard Egarr (Organ)
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1715-1717; London, England 
Sonata à cinque for Violin and Strings in B flat major, HWV 288 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Richard Egarr (Harpsichord), Pavlo Beznosiuk (Violin)
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1706-1707; Italy 
Concertos (6) for Organ, Op. 4/HWV 289-294 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Richard Egarr (Organ)
Conductor:  Richard Egarr
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1735-1736; London, England 

Featured Sound Samples

Concerto grosso, op 3 no 5: IV. Allegro, ma non troppo
Organ Concerto, op 4 no 1: IV. Andante
Organ Concerto, op 4 no 4: I. Allegro
Concerto grosso, op 6 no 5: I. --
Concerto grosso, op 6 no 5: II. Allegro

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