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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL, G.F.: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 (Aradia Ensemble, Mallon)
Handel’s Concerti Grossi contain some of the finest orchestral music of the eighteenth century. The Op 6 collection brims with a wealth of variety, colour, and dance rhythms—Polish and Pastoral dances, courtly and fast ones—and Handel’s customary self-borrowings and indeed borrowings from other composers. The combination of full orchestra with a concertino solo group of two violins and cello allows both breadth and intimacy, producing concertos in the fullest sense. On this recording Kevin Mallon incorporates the later oboe parts for Concertos Nos 1, 2, 5 and 6, using them as a model for most of the other concertos. When the oboes are silent, flutes or recorders are added, in line with eighteenth-century practice.
By John Terauds
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Concerti Grossi, Op 6
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the son of a successful barber-surgeon and his much younger, second wife. His father opposed his son’s early musical ambitions and after his father’s death Handel duly matriculated at the University in Halle in February 1702, as his father had insisted. He was able to seize the chance of employment as organist at the Calvinist Cathedral the following month, holding the position for a year, until his departure for Hamburg. There he worked at the opera, at first as a violinist and then as harpsichordist and composer, contributing in the latter capacity to the Italian operatic repertoire of the house. At the invitation of the son of the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, he travelled, in 1706, to Italy, where he won considerable success during the next four years. Connections he had made in Venice brought appointment in 1710 as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. From here he was granted immediate leave to fulfil a commission in London.
Handel’s first opera for London was Rinaldo, with which he won general acclaim, in spite of the carping of literary critics, and after little over a year in Hanover again, he returned to England in the autumn of 1712. The following year he took up residence at Burlington House in Piccadilly as a guest of Lord Burlington. He had, at the same time, accepted a commission from Queen Anne for his first contributions to the English liturgy, settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht. After a brief period in Germany in the summer of 1716, Handel returned to England, joining the establishment of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (sic) and later Duke of Chandos, at Cannons, near Edgware. Principally, over the following years, Handel established himself as a composer of Italian opera, for which there was a fashionable audience, gradually achieving a dominant position in the musical life of the English capital. He enjoyed the royal patronage of George I, Elector of Hanover, who had succeeded to the English throne in 1715, on the death of Queen Anne, and on the death of the former in 1727 was commissioned to provide anthems for the coronation of George II. In the following years he was again called upon to provide music for royal occasions. At the same time his involvement with Italian opera brought increasing commercial difficulties, particularly after the establishment of a rival opera company in 1733 under the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, himself later a strong supporter of Handel.
While Handel’s work in Italian opera continued, with a final opera to be staged in 1741, he increasingly turned his attention to a new English form, that of the oratorio. This had certain very practical advantages, in language, lack of the need for expensive spectacle and the increasing employment of native singers. The content of oratorios appealed to English Protestant susceptibilities, providing a winning synthesis of religion and entertainment, and offering no offence to those who had found operatic conventions ridiculous in a city with strong pre-existent dramatic traditions. Handel’s first English oratorio, in 1732, was Esther, with a libretto based on Racine, followed, in 1733, by the biblical Deborah in March and in July Athalia. During the following years he continued to develop the form, chiefly on biblical subjects but with an occasional excursion into the mythological. These works, with their Italianate melodies, strong choral writing and demonstrable dramatic sense, ensured their composer’s continued popularity and dominance, particularly, after his death, with the wider development of choral singing in the nineteenth century. Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah, was first performed in 1742, his last, Jephtha, ten years later. While Messiah may be exceptional in its ambitious subject, most treat narratives derived from the Old Testament, well characterized by the composer’s own descriptive title of them as sacred dramas.
Handel died in London in April 1759 and was buried, as he had requested, in Westminster Abbey. There he was commemorated three years later by an imaginative and slightly improbable monument by Louis François Roubiliac, who had provided, thirty years before, a statue of the composer for the pleasure gardens at Vauxhall. In the Abbey he is represented in his night-cap and slippers, in the guise of Apollo, an indication of his popular reputation. His funeral drew a crowd of some three thousand mourners, while posthumous Handel celebrations could muster a similar audience in the Abbey, with a proportionate number of performers.
According to the general custom of the time, Handel did not hesitate to borrow from other composers or, more often, from his own earlier work, when occasion arose for material to be used again. The date of composition of his earlier set of Concerti Grossi, Op 3, is not known. These six concertos were published in London in 1734 by John Walsh and draw on Italian, French and German styles of the period, derived from various sources. Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Op 6, published by the younger John Walsh in 1740, form a coherent and planned set of twelve works, written in the space of a few weeks and sometimes transforming material derived from other compositions, his own or those of others. Handel had met Corelli in Rome and, indeed, played for him, however different his style appeared to the older composer. Handel’s Grand Concertos, issued as Opus 6, thus matching Corelli’s own Opus 6 Concerti Grossi, were written more or less in the order in which they appeared in publication, scored for a concertino solo group of two violins and cello, contrasted, in traditional concerto grosso style, with the main body of the string orchestra and continuo, the ripieno. Handel later began to add oboe parts, perhaps for theatre use, but these were never completed. The present recording uses these wind parts, interpreted according to the general practice of Handel’s time.
The Concerto Grosso in G major, Op 6, No 1, starts with a movement apparently derived from a planned overture to the opera Imeneo, its final dominant chord leading directly to the following Allegro, with its continuing contrasts between concertino and ripieno. An E minor Adagio leads to a fugal Allegro and a final dance-like movement in 6/8, in which, it has been suggested, are possible references to the Essercizi of Domenico Scarlatti, with whom Handel had had competitive contact during his years in Rome.¹
The second of the set, the Concerto Grosso in F major, Op 6, No 2, opens with a movement in which the two violin and cello concertino is contrasted with the ripieno, the body of the orchestra. The second movement Allegro begins with a D minor dialogue between the two solo violins, followed by a characteristic F major Largo and a fugal closing Allegro.
The Concerto Grosso in E minor, Op 6, No 3, starts with a short Larghetto, leading to a contrapuntal Andante in 12/8 for the whole orchestra and based on a subject of unusual intervals. The third movement contrasts concertino and ripieno and leads to a G major Polish dance, an element of Handel’s synthesis of the old forms of church and chamber sonata or concerto, the former with stricter ordering of movements and the latter with its dance suite form. The work ends with a 6/8 Allegro, introduced by the concertino, at once answered by the ripieno.
The Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op 6, No 4, opens with a slow movement, variously marked by Handel, who eventually removed the word Larghetto, leaving the simple direction Affettuoso. The movement is followed by a fugal Allegro, with a third movement in F and in a gently lilting 3/2. The concerto ends with a spirited Allegro.
The fifth of the set, the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op 6, No 5, starts with a French Ouverture, its slow and sharply rhythmical introduction leading to a fugal Allegro, a reworking by Handel of the overture for his Song for St Cecilia’s Day, written about the same time. A lively Presto is followed by a short slow movement, bringing contrasts of soloists and orchestra, before a final Menuet.
The Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op 6, No 6, has a slow opening movement, followed by a fugal Allegro. A Musette, a French dance derived from the more elegant French bagpipe, is succeeded by two Allegro movements, the second in three-part texture, with all the violins in unison.
The Grand Concertos draw some ideas from the work of Handel’s Vienna-based contemporary Gottlieb Muffat, whose Componimenti musicali were known to Handel at least from 1739. The Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op 6, No 7, is introduced by a short Largo, leading to a fugal Allegro. A G minor Largo is followed by an Andante in which the original key is restored, the whole concerto capped by an essentially English dance, a Hornpipe, which, nevertheless, may owe something to Muffat.
The Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op 6, No 8, starts with an Allemande, the dance that traditionally opened the French dance suite. A short slow movement leads the way to a more extended movement. A short ensuing Adagio is followed by a Siciliana, the traditional Sicilian dance in triple metre and with dotted rhythms so often associated with the pastoral. The concerto ends with a short Allegro.
The Concerto Grosso in F major, Op 6, No 9, has an introductory slow movement, followed by an Allegro with contrasts between the concertino and ripieno. This is succeeded by a Larghetto in siciliana rhythm. The second violin introduces the subject of the fugal Allegro. The Minuet, with its change from minor to major, is followed by a final Gigue.
The Concerto in D minor, Op 6, No 10, starts with a French Ouverture, the first part in the traditional slow dotted rhythms of the form, capped by a fugal Allegro, which ends, as it should, with a return to the rhythms and pace of the introduction. This leads to an Air, a slow movement replete with dynamic contrasts. A short Allegro follows, leading to a fugal movement in which the concertino again has an independent part to play. The concerto ends in a D major Allegro moderato, a concluding dance.
The Concerto in A major, Op 6, No 11, starts in the manner of a French overture, its first movement including contrasts between concertino and ripieno and passages of bariolage for the first violin. The second violin introduces the subject of the following fugal Allegro. A linking passage of six bars, marked Largo e staccato is succeeded by an Andante of considerable rhythmic variety and a final Allegro.
The last of the set, the Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op 6, No 12, begins, again, in the style of a French overture, its formal opening Largo leading to a fugal Allegro. The following movement presents an E major theme, and after it a variation, at first over a moving bass part and then with a wider deployment of quaver notation. A short Largo leads to a final fugal Allegro, its subject, with dotted rhythms, proposed by the first violins, duly answered by the seconds, then the violas and cellos, followed finally by the figured bass-line. Varied rhythms are introduced, ending a set of concertos of infinite variety.
¹ qv. A Silbiger: “Scarlatti Borrowings in Handel’s Grand Concertos”, Musical Times CXXV, pp.93 ssq. February 1984
A short note on these performances
Handel’s famous Concerti grossi, Op 6, have long been a staple of the string repertoire. What is often less known is that the composer wrote oboe parts for Concertos Nos 1, 2, 5 and 6. Aradia has used these on this recording and indeed, has made them a model for our own oboe parts for the other concerti (except Concerto No 4). Since in the eighteenth century, it was the custom for the oboe players to double on flutes or recorders, we have similarly adopted this practice for movements when the oboes are silent.
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