Diving into Handel's world

Handel’s Twelve Grand Concertos are an orchestral masterpiece but can sound like an academic exercise - but not on this disc

Composer: Handel
Repertoire: Twelve Concerti Grossi, Op.6
Artists: Australian Brandenburg Orchestra/ Paul Dyer (harpsichord)
Rating:  5/5
Genre: Orchestral
Label:  ABC Classics 476 3436

The Music: In the late 1730s, the man who controlled the beating heart of London’s West End was staring ruin in the face. And his own heart wasn’t doing too well, either: a rival to his established opera company had combined with rapidly shifting public tastes to put him under severe financial and physical strain, until he suffered a near-fatal stroke in 1737. This troubled impresario needn’t have worried. Not about his creative work, anyway. Why? Because he was George Frideric Handel – and nobody could second-guess the vain, fluctuating state of public taste quite like he could. A few months recuperating from his dodgy ticker at a French spa and he could return to London, all guns blazing. And that’s exactly what Handel did. By September 1739, he’d seen off his rivals and was preparing to unveil a new London season. It would shift the emphasis from full stagings of Italian-style operas to concert performances of biblical oratorios, sung in English. In between acts, Handel conjured a delicacy to keep his audiences entertained: a set of concertos that fused the Londoners’ love for those by the Italian Arcangelo Corelli with his own inimitable gift for orchestral texture and mood. The resulting Twelve Grand Concertos could so easily have been doomed. Not only did Handel give himself just a month to write them, he also tried to combine a multitude of styles: Italian shape and structure; German variance of movement; French grandeur and panache. He knew he needed to spawn a musical money-spinner, but he also wanted to pay dignified homage to Corelli. He was trying, it seemed, to kill all the birds in Brook Street with one rather unwieldy stone. Against the odds, Handel succeeded. Not only did he combine the best ideas from similar works by various other Italian, French and German composers without merely copying them, he also wrote some of the most spontaneous, virtuosic and moving music of his career in the process. He even borrowed material from himself, recycling music from some of his Italian operas and transforming much of it ‘beyond recognition’ in the words of his biographer Donald Burrows. 

The Performance: Handel’s Twelve Grand Concertos were destined for greatness. Which means, of course, that they’re frequently committed to CD. Even in recent months we’ve had fine recordings of the concertos from some of the best in the business: a delicately carved set from Polish group Arte Dei Suonatori on BIS (Editor’s Choice, December 2008); a punchy, oboe-spiced performance from Italians Il Giardino Armonico (five stars, April 2009). But it’s Australia that has brought forth the most compelling recording of the concertos for years. Paul Dyer and his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra highlight what is the most important quality of the opus six concertos: their capacity for varying shades of human emotion. Across the concertos – some of which call upon ‘Brandenburg’ style instrumental solos far more than others – the music is by turns frenzied, passionate, furious, plaintive, joyous and contemplative. But each concerto has its own overarching mood, too. Dyer’s musicians create a sense of momentum and narrative by first getting to the emotional core of each concerto and then placing the works in an un-chronological order that has a dramatic rhythm of its own. Within that, they make the case for each and every movement with tempi that are bang on and a spaciousness that allows the music to breathe. This is a young, vigorous, hungry ensemble – the sort that you can imagine shaking up the same early music movement that first did the shaking 40 years ago. The ensemble performs with all the discipline, colour and authentic nuance that you’d expect from a speciality early music group playing on period instruments, but with none of the posturing or point-making that can sometimes come before entertainment. To that it adds verve, a full-bodied tutti sound, a fizzy string timbre and delicious solo work. When Handel reaches his emotional peaks, the ABO responds with moving playing. 

The Verdict: You have to go a long way to hear Baroque music played like this – with energy that doesn’t compromise on tidiness, with spontaneity that doesn’t blur texture and with emotion that doesn’t trample on authenticity. A very long way. But thanks to this disc, not all the way to Sydney.