Corin Nelson-Smith (24 June 2021)
As a fan of Baroque music in general, and in particular works of the Concerto Grosso structure, I was keen to listen to this album featuring the historically complicated and somewhat controversial 6 Concerti Grossi by G.F. Handel, performed by Van Diemen’s Band and conducted by Martin Gester. Founded in 2016, Van Diemen’s Band is based in Tasmania, and includes some of Australia’s best known early music specialists who together have performed around the world with ensembles such as the Academy of Ancient Music, Ensemble Pygmalion, and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. French harpsichordist, organist, pianist and conductor Martin Gester is no stranger to Van Diemen’s Band, having worked with them on multiple occasions before. Gester began his musical career as a singer, and later founded Le Parliament de Musique with whom he specialised in conducting baroque and classical repertoire, often highlighting the links between vocal and instrumental music in his programmes.
This particular collection of Handel’s works was originally put together as part of a cunning plan by one John Walsh, an 18th Century music publisher famous for re-branding and re-publishing sheet music without the permission of the composers as a way to make a quick bit of cash. Twenty years after a successful print of Corelli’s Opus 6, which was particularly popular with amateur musicians around Britain, Walsh took advantage of the fact that the royal protection over Handel’s music was due to expire and strung together a rather mismatched set of his orchestral music, which he re-branded and advertised as Handel’s Opera Terza. To further his deceit, Walsh enticed musicians by claiming that the music had been performed at the wedding ceremony of the Prince of Orange and the Princess Royal of Great Britain in 1727, as well as not disclosing on the title page that each of these pieces requires drastically different orchestration and is thus, as Brian Clark notes in the album insert, almost impossible to perform as a concert set, simply due to the logistical nightmare that would ensue when trying to corral different musicians for each piece, or find musicians happy to play more than one instrument at once! Nevertheless, it became an incredibly popular selection of music, with three editions published and multiple copies surviving in British libraries.
Coherently collating music drawn from a range of a composer’s catalogue into a work cycle such as this one is a tricky task, and as such is generally left to the composer. One may order the pieces depending on number of instruments, the musical progression, or the narrative the music follows, however Walsh’s first edition of this set was clearly cobbled together, rushed, and printed without much thought to the practicality, or musicality of actually performing it; as I mentioned above, a bit of a “get rich quick” scheme. This album is in fact based on the second edition of the set, which included the addition of Concerto IV, and extra material in Concerto V, however as the published order leads to some rather unorthodox tonal and structural progressions, Martin Gester has wisely chosen to record the music in a different, and much more coherent order.
Van Diemen’s Band perform mesmerisingly, with all the grace and decorum we associate with images of an 18th Century court. Part of what makes the Concerto Grosso such an engaging musical force is the relationship between the concertino (the soloists), the ripieno (accompanying musicians), and the ever present continuo (the harmonic driving force behind the whole piece, generally harpsichord and/or viol). Unsurprisingly, this group of HIP, or Historically Informed Performance, experts handle this relationship effortlessly, highlighting the sparkling dialogue between concertino violins in the second concerto, the delicately beautiful obbligato flute in the third concerto, and the stately doubled strings and oboes in the fourth concerto. The inclusion of the sixth concerto, with an obbligato organ movement in the middle of the set also provides a thought-provoking contrast, harking back to Handel’s use of organ-based orchestral works as interval entertainment between movements of his oratorios. I think it is also prudent to mention the use of period instruments, including the theorbo, a lute style plucked string instrument, and the traverso, a wooden flute common in the Baroque period, which I believe never fails to enhance any baroque recording or performance. Naturally, the performers’ subtler intonation, dynamic control and of course, emotion, all come across in a manner that suitably reflects their wealth of experience and talent, not to mention the fantastically expressive and detailed recording by BIS.
So, pirated, re-branded, and dubiously re-printed or not, this is still a wonderful collection of some of Handel’s best known and best loved works, performed and recorded remarkably, and therefore a worthy addition to any Baroque lover’s CD collection.