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Celebrating Handel’s Kaleidoscopic Concerti Grossi

Academy for Ancient Music Berlin
Uwe Arens
Academy for Ancient Music Berlin

The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin’s stunning new recording of Handel concertos is the first of a projected trilogy, and it’s WCRB’s CD of the Week.

As the decades have passed, baroque musicians seem to have discovered the secrets of their historical instruments, and with that has come lots of insight into the expressive language of the composers they play. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Akamus for short) has been around since 1982. With thirty core musicians, frequent guest conductors, and a hundred concerts a year, they’ve developed an uncanny warmth of sound and a loving familiarity with Handel’s world.

In their first of three recordings of Handel’s kaleidoscopically rich Concerti Grossi, Akamus offers up the first six of the twelve Op. 6, written in a single month in 1739. Handel was at the top of his career, creating Italian operas and English oratorios for an adoring public in London. These concertos for multiple instruments worked well as entertainment between acts, and it’s clear that he gave serious attention to them during the four weeks that they were composed (believe it or not, that’s a lot of time for Handel – he regularly wrote entire operas in that span).

These pieces are the top of the mountain in baroque music, and concertmaster Bernhard Forck finds all the shadows and light that Handel imagined, with a jaw-dropping sense of three-dimensional space that adds to the recording’s special atmosphere. Listen to the Adagio of the first Concerto (track 3) as it shivers its way into the playful echo chamber of the Allegro that follows.

The tempos in all six feel just right, and the sound is never hard-edged or brittle. There’s always a joyous rhythmic underpinning in the quick movements (listen to track 7, the second movement of No. 2 - it’s so stylishly out of breath).

On a side note, it’s nice to know that Forck has an affectionate connection to Boston. He told an interviewer that this is where he played his first concert as a baroque violinist in America, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1990. “Concerts with historical instruments were more of a rarity at that time,” he said, “so there was a very committed and enthusiastic audience at Jordan Hall.” And it’s only gotten better!

Watch a trailer for the album:

For more information and to purchase this album, visit Arkiv Music.