Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble is an existentialist philosopher’s dream: it only exists when it’s making music. When it’s not, it is a concept masterminded by peripatetic Toronto conductor Kevin Mallon. It is he who deserves the bulk of the credit for a magnificent new Naxos 3-CD box containing the 12 Op. 6 Concerti Grossi by George Frideric Handel.
Besides Mallon, this box of musical wonders wouldn’t have been possible without Tafelmusik, which supplied six key members of the period-instrument Aradia band for the recording sessions at Grace Church-on-the-Hill in August, 2011. The rest of a total of 25 players come from our growing community of international-class freelancers.
Mallon leads the enterprise from the first violin desk and contributes several solos.
The result is a model of careful understatement enhanced by an impeccable sense of tempo, phrasing and breathing in the music.
Having two dozen players in this pick-up orchestra is enough to provide the sound with the right heft, while maintaining clear textures. Mallon has enriched the sound further by adding oboe parts to all but Concerto Grosso No. 4. Handel had written some of his own, and Mallon has supplemented these by having the oboe double other parts.
The reverberant acoustic at the church gives the sound spaciousness and warmth without blurring any instrument articulations. But, to an attentive listener, it does occasionally sound like different movements of the same concerto were recorded at different times or using different microphone settings.
The whole focus is on the extraordinary beauty of these 12 pieces published in 1740, each containing four to six movements in contrasting styles. Handel borrowed freely from himself as well as other composers he admired.
A concerto grosso is a symphonic piece where individuals or groups within the orchestra get highlighted passages to play, enhancing the existing shifts in the orchestral texture as well as the speed and overall dynamics of each piece to make for rich listening.
The bottom line is that this is an excellent recording of beautiful music that rewards both a casual listener and a serious devotee. And, because the Aradia Ensemble exists so infrequently, this is pretty much the only way to savour this wonderful musicianship.