George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a practical composer. He believed in recycling: if he once wrote a rather good piece, he used it again elsewhere. Of the compositions entitled Concerti Grossi, Opus 3 (1734), only the first was originally conceived as a concerto grosso. The other five are compilations of movements written years before, with a few new movements added. The publication contains a wonderful variety of texture and colour, and is full of contrasting emotions. The individual concertos feature different instrumentations - pairs of oboes, recorders, cellos, violins and bassoons all make an appearance, as well as solo violin, oboe, flute and organ.
The first concerto is the only one in the set that was newly composed - it contains no material reworked from earlier compositions. It is the most typical concerto grosso, a term implying the alternation of small groups of instruments with the full orchestra. In each movement, two pairs of solo instruments contrast with the full string orchestra. In the opening Allegro, a pair of oboes alternates with solo oboe and solo violin; in the following Largo, two recorders make way for the violin and oboe again, and in the closing Allegro a pair of oboes trades places with a pair of bassoons.
The second concerto was probably written before 1720 for the opera orchestra in the Haymarket theatre in London. The lively rhythm of the opening movement (which Handel took from a version of his Brockes Passion of 1716) gives way to a lyrical Largo. A compact, contrapuntal Allegro follows, also borrowed from the Brockes Passion. Handel then added two new dance movements, a Menuet contrasting static harmonies with a flowing melody, and a Gavotte with virtuoso variations for the bass group and the violins.
The sparse texture of the third concerto is explained by the fact that it contains two movements from the seventh Chandos anthem (1717), none of which included a viola part. In the concerto version, the viola simply plays the bass part up an octave. The texture, with two violin parts above a bass, is therefore that of a trio sonata, with the addition of a flute part that jumps between the violin parts, sometimes doubling the one, sometimes the other, and occasionally going its own way. The fourth movement (originally written for harpsichord) is a textbook example of German baroque style, in which Handel combines his two themes, one rhythmic and the other chromatic, in double and inverted counterpoint.
Handel used the fourth concerto to display his dramatic talent. The opening movement is a playful French overture, which made its first appearance as the ‘second overture' at a benefit performance of the opera Amadigi in the Haymarket theatre in 1716. In the Andante, Handel gives us a flowing aria for the oboe. With the agitated Allegro that follows, one can imagine characters running around an opera stage, setting the scene for the majestic Menuet.
The fifth concerto, on the other hand, is the darkest of the set. As in the third concerto, the first, second and fourth movements come from Chandos anthems, with the violas once again doubling the bass line an octave higher. Solo writing and independent oboe parts are now absent, the oboes being used - especially in the Fuga - to colour he violin lines. The third and fifth movements, both newly composed for this concerto, contain haunting scale passages.
The sixth concerto introduces yet more timbres. The first movement, one of the highlights of the Opus 3 concertos, comes originally from the opera Ottone (1723). Here Handel returns to the Italianate concerto grosso texture of the first concerto, contrasting a pair of solo oboes with the full orchestra. The final Allegro has a surprise in store: a solo organ part, which is a reworking of the last movement of the overture to Il pastor fido. This last movement (here introduced by an organ improvisation) is the only one in the entire collection that was composed after 1730.
The members of Il Concerto Barocco have a widely different international background but one thing in common: their passion for early music. Many left their home countries to specialise in early music in the Netherlands, and musical friends do not part easily. As Il Concerto Barocco they meet regularly to play music of the late Renaissance and Baroque on period instruments or copies, performing with widely varied instrumentations to suit particular programmes ranging from intimate chamber music to large-scale oratorios.
Since its foundation in 2002, Il Concerto Barocco has become a welcome and regular guest at many concert venues. It has its own concert series in the Waterstaatskerk in Hengelo, where the ensemble is based, and joins in choral projects throughout the Netherlands and in Germany. CDs issued in the last three years featuring music by Telemann, Schmelzer and Vivaldi have met with widespread acclamation.