George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

I first encountered Martin Gester’s Handel with the Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (review). This was recorded with the musicians of Arte dei Suonatori in Poland, and for Op 3 he has moved all the way to Australia to direct the cleverly named Van Diemen’s Band. This is a crack ensemble with players whose pedigree extends to ensembles such as Les Arts Florissants and the English Concert, and with BIS’s superlative recording standards we know we are in safe hands from the outset.

Handel’s Op 3 is, as Brian Clark’s booklet notes put it, “little more than a cavalier English publisher’s barely disguised attempt to make some quick money from music by a famous composer.” The dodgy background to this collection and the original sources for most of the concertos are neatly outlined in the booklet, but whatever its origins this opus was a huge success in its time and remains a highly attractive and popular listen today. Performed on period instruments and set in a generous but not over-resonant acoustic, Handel’s music flows with elegant poise in this recording. The spread of sound from concertino to ripieno creates glorious contrasts, Martin Gester’s tempi being brisk without rushing, and allowing us to hear everything without us feeling the need to ‘keep up’ with breathless swiftness of pace. This is not to say that the faster movements are without rhythmic impact or excitement, but the engagement we have is with detailed refinement rather than physical drive.

When it comes to expressive depth, Gester draws excellence from his players without mannered gestures or leaning too heavily on the notes. Phrases are nicely shaped as are individual notes, but the progression of the whole, the narrative value in each movement is paramount. Dramatic moments such as the central Adagio in the D minor Fifth Concerto Grosso balance the feeling of such a movement as an intermezzo as well as its being a statement in its own right. Virtuosity, such as in the final Allegro of the same concerto is taken with unselfconscious but richly entertaining ease, with crisp rhythms but no unnecessary angularity.

There are innumerable options when it comes to recordings of this music, though many are paired with the more extensive Op 6 collection. Of the single-disc period instrument recordings of Op 3, Reinhard Goebel with the Berliner Barock Solisten on the Hänssler Classic label (review) is a good choice, though the sound is a little more distant and homogenised than with Van Diemen’s Band. To my mind the latter wins in terms of character and timbral contrast, though Goebel remains a safe bet. An older recording from the mid 1980s with Hans-Martin Linde and the Linde Consort (review) shows us how far we’ve come in recent decades. This is still a decent enough performance, but you can hear a greater sense of assuredness and tightness of ensemble from both Goebel and Gester, as well as richer sonorities due in part to a more ambitious sonic balance.

There is a fair chance you already have a favourite recording of this music, and only you will know if you want to make space for a new one. Martin Gester hasn’t gone out for spectacle, for something that initially impresses but then becomes fatiguing. Gester’s organ solo in the Sixth Concerto Grosso is very good and played with tasteful ornamentation, the instrument well balanced with the rest of the ensemble but with some gentle mechanical noises audible in the solo. To my ears this BIS recording is ‘a keeper’. It’s the kind of recording which has immediate appeal for many reasons, but is also one that grows on you the more you listen to it, appreciating its fine corners, burnished luminosity and moreish flavours.

Dominy Clements

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