Handel Opus 3 - Berlin Baroque Soloists
Of Handel’s collections of concerti grossi, opus 3 fits onto one CD; opus 6 requires two. In their career of thirty years recording baroque music, Musica Antiqua Köln never recorded much Handel, and never recorded the opus 3 concertos. However most recently, Reinhard Goebel, one of the founders of MAK in the 1970s, takes role as director with the Berliner Barock Solisten. The ensemble has been recording baroque works on modern instruments, and after some prior success in working with Goebel, now names him as their artistic director.
There is a world of difference in the recorded sound of this ensemble and say, the best comparison, MAK’s Brandenburg Concertos or the Heinichen concertos recorded in the early 1990s. To be clear, Goebel established his career performing on period instruments and as violinist was very strict with his adherence to baroque performance practice. The BBS use harpsichord in the continuo section but with otherwise modern versions of strings and woodwinds. To my ears, the harpsichord sounds tinny and strident. The sixth concerto features solo organ, which sounds like many a chamber organ used in period-instrument recordings.
In this recording, the sound is bright. For me it possesses a digital edge to the sound, which is likely not an indictment to my system, but the balance of frequencies captured in the recording. There’s also significant reverb, the mikes capturing the ensemble at some distance. This is a contrast with many (but not all) period recordings, which in general, favor much closer microphone placement to capture, we might expect, the chamber nature of works such as these.
Musically, there’s a smoothness to the lines such as the Largo of the 2nd concerto in B-flat (HWV 313) or the Largo in the first concerto, HWV 312. The contrasts between concertino (the smaller group of soloists) against the orchestra are very stark, as evidenced in the Menuett of the second concerto. The tone of the winds (oboes and bassoon) is clear and dynamically shaped. Solo violin comes across as weaker in the mix (listen to the Allegro of the F-major concerto, HWV Anh. B319).
One of my favorite recordings of Handel’s concertos is the opus 6 collection by the Milan-based ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico. For me, it provided us a glimpse of the real dramatic potential of Handel’s orchestral works using dynamic shading.
The contrasts in this recording between concertino and concerto ensemble are the most profound expression of dynamic contrasts; at Goebel’s direction, the ensemble doesn’t explore the excesses in dynamics explored in the IGA recording. Given the distance at which the recording was recorded, some of these contrasts lose their punch.
But my only criticism of this recording isn’t the way in which it was recorded and mastered. I have to take issue too with the artistic direction by Goebel. In his career, he hasn’t been shy to express extravagant views on performance (including doing so musically, with record-breaking tempos). But the comments recounted in the liner notes quote Goebel describing performance on period instruments as a “fetish,” and that it’s time to move on. He continues to state that the future of baroque music will be in the hands of modern ensembles.
His words seem to suggest to me that the same “sensibilities” of performing this music, as perhaps re-considered in the HIP movement, can continue by a virtuoso ensemble such as BBS. He mentions that you play with “your head” and that the instrument doesn’t matter?
It’s hard for me to write this, being a fan for most of my musical life of Goebel’s recordings and musicianmanship. To my ears, he was one of the best baroque violinists the current generation has known. But there’s something unsettling about his newfound philosophy and the musical result. At some level, I get the sentiment, that this music is good enough to become celebrated by any ensemble. Why, I imagine he might argue, that a contemporary ensemble couldn’t take up the performance of a Bach Brandenburg concerto? Would that sentiment go on to advocate Bach’s WTC on piano? How about Handel on synthesizer? As this recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is testament, Goebel has brought some rather obscure pieces in the baroque canon to a wider audience.
We don’t need Goebel’s blessing to perform any music on any kind of instrumentarium. Yet, as open as I am to hearing this music performed by, say, a guitar quartet, the result of this recording is lacking to me on several levels. For one, I can’t accept performances where performance practice is knowingly, and only partially, explored. Here, the instrumentation is and ensemble size is adopted, but with performance details that obscure this adherence (i.e., use of vibrato, use of harpsichord). (The Rebel recording, linked above, is worse; it introduces instruments like the modern horn into the ensemble for which the original piece never included, not to mention the large size of the string ensemble. To that, it puts an awkward Goebel in front of the sound, his conducting something that I find difficult to watch and would be quite foreign to the likes of a Jean-Féry Rebel.)
Second, for a chamber piece, I want to be closer to the musicians. The wetness of the acoustic in this recording is disappointing, especially given the repertoire, with the anemic sound of the concertino group and bass in general.
The third criticism lies within the evolving musical philosophy of Reinhard Goebel. Since MAK’s disbanding and his statement where he effectively “gave up” trying to bring unheard works to the public’s attention, Goebel has found a new career in teaching and working with modern ensembles. Some of this work has taken him out of the baroque soundworld with more contemporary composers. But his statement that historical performance practice is now a fetish, in his view, is too strong, if even progressive a statement to make. To be sure, there’s a number of fine ensembles continuing to explore baroque repertoire on period instruments (beyond the instruments I have to state, to be clear, is the performance practice associated with the music from this period). Some are exploring new repertoire in the recorded canon.
Which in my mind always returns to the term that’s not used today, but came about in the late 1970s and 1980s: authenticity. Peter Kivy wrote extensively on this topic in a book that challenged the notion of the word “authentic” in period instrument performance. For him, he deduced that “authentic” music making came from the performer and not a historical tradition. For me, that becomes crystal clear when listening to Wendy Carlos and Glenn Gould.
For me, Goebel’s recording with the BBS is a poor compromise. Good scholarship as to performance practice using an instrumentarium foreign to the period hits my ears as a poor substitute to the ground-breaking result of IGA with Handel’s opus 6. My point is, if you are going to record any piece of music outside the soundworld as advocated by the composer (either implicitly or by association with an accepted performance practice) then go bold! Do something different, blow off the cobwebs.
For me this recording was disappointing. And that’s not saying that the playing wasn’t good; it was. Very good. It’s just an example of a musical enterprise with poor artistic direction.