Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Two Conductors for Two Simultaneous Ensembles

courtesy of PIAS

Among the compositions listed in Bernd Baselt’s Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis in the concerto grosso category, three are distinguished for a rather unique approach to the genre. These are given the title “Concerto a due cori” (concerto for two choirs). They were probably intended as instrumental interludes for performances of oratorios by George Frideric Handel.

The notes provided for the Wikipedia listing of the contents of Baselt’s catalog name specific oratorios for each of these concertos. HWV 332 in B-flat major was probably performed during Joshua (HWV 64), HWV 333 in F major supplemented Alexander Balus (HWV 65), and HWV 334 in F major was inserted into Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63). All three of the concertos repurposed music Handel had previously composed for other compositions. Most listeners today will appreciate that repurposing by recognizing familiar excerpts from the HWV 56 Messiah oratorio.

These concertos began to enjoy revived popularity (due in some part to the familiarity of some of the music) when the recording industry began to take a great interest in pre-Classical music. I have the Musical Heritage Society to thank for my own “first encounter” with this music, which took place during my student days. Indeed, I was more than a little tickled to discover that, if I still had a turntable, I could re-live that first encounter through a used vinyl recording available through Amazon.com.

Those were the days when Jean-François Paillard was the standard-bearer for those interested in pre-Classical music. I sometimes shudder to think that half a century has elapsed since then; but, over the course of that half-century, listeners interested in such “early music” have been able to benefit from extensive scholarship, much of which has been translated into performance practices, which may now be appreciated through a new generation of recordings. So it is that, almost a month ago, harmonia mundi released an album of all three of the Concerti a due cori, performed by the members of the Freiburger Barockorchester.

The booklet notes by Simon Heighes indicate that the term “cori” referred specifically to “wind choirs,” which could engage in antiphonal give-and-take. The idea of exploiting such resources in a concert setting can be attributed to a “fortuitous historical accident.” The oratorios enumerated above were performed during the seasons of 1747 and 1748, an “era of good feeling” that followed the defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The return of peace led to the “disbanding” of many military bands, putting a veritable flood of wind players “on the market.” One might almost say that Handel wrote these concertos to deal with an unemployment problem.

While most performances of these pieces tend to utilize two separated groups of wind players, usually situated on opposite sides of a string ensemble, this new recording takes a somewhat more extreme approach. Each concerto is played by two full ensembles of both winds and strings, each with its own conductor. The two conductors are Gottfried von der Goltz and Petra Müllejans, both leading from their respective concertmaster’s chairs. Furthermore, these groups take turns with regard to which serves as the “first choir” and which the second.

It is unclear how much this will matter to most serious listeners today. The recording itself does not try to exploit the extremes of “total stereo separation;” and I, for one, sympathize with that decision. For one thing I do not believe in separating my loudspeakers by a great distance; and, for another, I deplore trying to exploit such separation techniques through headphones. I would rather devote my attention to the more refined ways in which two different ensembles can give and take through the exchange of different ways of playing the same passage. The delight in listening to this recording is the recognition that there is almost never any such thing as rote repetition; and, when two different groups of performers are involved, the differences matter more than any “reproduction” of the marks on paper!

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