Handel: Concerti grossi, Op. 6

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Concerti grossi, Op. 6
PERFORMER: Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907228-29
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.

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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.

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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