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Exploring Music: Harnoncourt Lets the Light Shine Through

The MHS Review 387 Vol. 11 No.9, 1987

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David M. Greene


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My town has just finished with its annual Bach Festival, which has just finished me, my reportorial duties having required in­tensive listening through six sessions in fewer than 48 hours. The transition from Bach to Handel is a difficult one for me to make, but it occurs to me that the Second Brandenburg supplies a good pivot, it hav­ing been magnificently played the other morning.

It occurs to me that, apart from the in­evitable Vivaldian Seasons, there are three sets of baroque concerti that, for most listeners, stand out: Corelli's, Bach's Brandenburgs, and Handel's op. 6. Corelli's was, of course, the first of the genre in point of time (published 1714, but written at some earlier date{s]). Bach's, as a set, date from ca. 1720, but several of them were written in earlier forms. Handel's are late--1739.

That year saw them tossed off and published within a few weeks. No one knows what the occasion was-perhaps pressure from Walsh, Handel's publisher, who had apparently nudged him into writing the op. 3 set a few years earlier: This kind of sustained effort on works of this kind was atypical of Handel. His concern was for his Big Bow-wows, his operas and oratorios. His approach to instrumental music was most commonly improvisational or self-pilfering. But he seems to have been serious here and the latter aspect is, for Handel, barely in evidence.

If there is improvisation, it is formal rather than interpretive. It would be very difficult to define Handel's notion of the concerto from what he does here. His point of departure is the Corellian expansion of the trio sonata (for which he has been call­ed "conservative"); but by the time he gets to the end of no. 12, he has thrown in elements of the solo concerto, the dance­-suite, and just about everything else you can think of. There is no prescribed number of movements, and, as the annotator points out, within the texture the meters often have to yield to more complex time pat­terns. According to Arthur Hutchings (The Baroque Concerto), some have argued that Handel here points to the symphonic Beethoven. ("A meaningless comment," snorts Hutchings. "Tubal Cain [ the suppos­ed Biblical inventor of music] points to Sibelius." For all this, Paul Henry Lang, in his monumental study of the composer, calls the Grand Concerti "altogether Handelian,'' adding that "Though the absolute anti­pode of Bach's Bran­denburg Concerti, [they] re­present with them the highest achievement of baroque orchestral music."

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a pioneer in the "period instrument" and "early perfor­mance practice" movements, and his records have had enormous success. His readings are not, however, to all tastes, and of this beautifully recorded set the Penguin Guide cautions that the interpretation is "eccentrically individual." That could be, but to my way of thinking Harnoncourt blows the dust off these pieces and lets the light shine through. I find what he does ex­citing, however wrong.

Review of Harnoncourt Conducts Handel's Op. 6 Concerti Grossi page 1

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