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Handel: “The Concerti Grossi”

Comparatively little of Handel’s instrumental music was published in any coherent fashion during his lifetime. How the dozens of movements of concerted orchestral music he left behind are supposed to fit together thus remains fairly baffling. In any case, two published sets of concerti grossi appeared during the 1730s.These show a composer at ease with the conventional Italian concerto as he had learned it from Corelli and others, yet keen to broaden its harmonic vocabulary and its formal possibilities.No composer was more skilled than Handel in manipulation the building blocks of ritornello practice, nor more inexhaustible of melodic invention.

The six Concerti Grossi, opus 3, have been konwn since Handel’s time as “the oboe concertos.” Such a subtitle is misleading, not only because there are true oboe concertos elsewhere in his oeuvre but because opus 3 calls for solo flute, recorder, and violin as well as the pair of oboes. The set was pieced together, from anthems and other works of 1710 and later, by Handel’s publisher, a man of more commercial sense than musical skill. Some of the resulting “concerti” are tonally dubious and it is not always clear which solo instruments are intended . Note the virtuoso passagework for two bassoons in the First Concerto. The Third Concerto works nicely for solo transverse flute and strings.

The opus 6 Concerti, by contrast, constitute a coherent series, composed at the peak of the composer’s career, and published under the title Twelve Grand Concertos in Seven Parts . Bigger and more artful works than their predecessors, they are to be seen alongside the Brandenburg Concertos (see p. 65) as representing the best of the Baroque concerto style. The soring is for strings and continuo alone, with a pair of violins as soloists. But if woodwind and brass colour are sacrificed here, the nuances of texture become all the more vivid . Handel’s formal designs are freely inventive: the concerti go from compact and traditional (no. 4, for example) to the leisurely, even sprawling works later in the opus. The most admired of the set is the Sixth Concerto, in G minor, with its long Musette. This is a movement that evokes the tiny bagpipe favored by aristocratic ladies fashionably playing shepherdess: a drone ( or bourdon) supports a languid melody of limited range. Repeated statements of the musette theme alternate with contrastive passages, including one particularly fine display of rapid passagework in the violins.

In the Baroque repertoire, the scores are sometimes only outlines of the music that was meant to result. This is especially true of the slow movements here, where there should be extensive ornamentation and improvisation, rather than simple chord progressions. During the improvisations, in a good performance, the soloists will respond to each other’s musical gambits as they go along, each trying in a friendly way to outdo the other.

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