These old instruments have the polish to play Handelby Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
Handel Concerti Grossi Opus 3--Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi 907415)
It's the difference between a personality-driven show and an ensemble cast. Does one person take the spotlight surrounded by supporting characters, or is the storyline passed around, giving everyone a chance to shine?
In the case of the concerto grosso, it's ensemble all the way. Sure, it's called a concerto, but in this case it's not about one instrument front and center; the lead is bumped back and forth among the various sections.
The Opus 3 set of concerti grossi by Handel were his very first published concertos. There's a fair amount of scholarly head-scratching about the set. These six pieces don't seem as uniform as a typical set of baroque concertos. It was a generally accepted practice of the era to publish a set of concertos highlighting the same solo instruments throughout. For example, Handel's Opus 6 concertos featured strings exclusively. The Opus 3 collection, however, variously spotlights oboes, flutes, bassoons, violins and combinations thereof. I think the variety of instruments is well-suited to the egalitarian nature of the concerto grosso itself.
The way these solo instruments rise in and out of prominence is so subtle that a new instrument can kind of sneak up on you and be fully into its solo before you realize it.
Even the "background" bits are breathtaking. Though they're the accompaniment to the melody line, perfect little trills from flutist Rachel Brown and violinist Pavlo Besnosiuk shimmer ever so briefly. It's like catching the tiniest burst of ginger in a well-composed sauce--a little explosion of flavor that doesn't overwhelm, but enhances.
Period performances often sound charming, but from time to time, the limitations of early instruments can result in some blatty brass, honk-y winds, and some generally dodgy intonation. In fact, some early-music specialists of late have seemed to revel in the grittier, raspier, earthier aspects of period performances. There is a ragged, wild-horse kind of appeal to that.
But in Handel's music, there is an unmistakably regal, celestial nature that calls for a more polished approach. Members of the Academy of Ancient Music use either original 17th and 18th century instruments or recreations. In this recording, their rustic, tonal colors shine through, but never at the expense of perfect intonation--and they are oh-so-smooth. Not the glossy, hard smooth of lacquer on a parquet floor, but smooth like a perfect custard: creamy, light and just sweet enough.