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.

handelBesides 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.

For all the details, including audio samples, click here. Naxos has published a thorough background interview with Mallon to go with the album release here.

John Terauds

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4 Responses to Album review: Kevin Mallon’s gorgeous, elegant take on Handel Concerti Grossi

  1. kevin mallon says:

    Hello John,

    I am delighted that you like the new 3 Cd set of Handel opus 6. I also appreciate that you have clearly listened to the whole thing- as a serious devotee!

    However I feel that there are a few things that I should point out to you:

    First you say that the project wouldn’t have been made without Tafelmusik because six of the players came from that exalted organization. Well, those players (five out of the six anyhow) played with Aradia and were members of Aradia before moving onto Tafelmusik. Tafelmusik is clearly the senior and more established group- but Aradia has always been a serious training ground for players and singers. I think you should give Aradia the credit for its own recording – these players are free to come and go as they wish and as I say, our relationship goes back a lot longer.

    But it is mainly the nature of Aradia that I wanted to address. I know you didn’t mean it unkindly when you said that Aradia “Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble is an existentialist philosopher’s dream: it only exists when it’s making music.”

    This is nicely and even affectionately put—but even so, I often wonder why it is worthy of note. I think that even as a part- time ensemble that do 4 main concerts in Toronto, (with many repeat concerts in Ontario), an annual performance of a baroque opera with Opera in Concert, an annual Canadian tour and summer residence in Italy – (performing two operas) and recordings which now number 50+, do quite well!

    The more pertinent question is why we can only exist so infrequently. I believe we are facing a crisis in the funding of the arts in Canada. It is all the arts councils can do to continue to service their big arts clients (The symphony, the opera etc.) I am NOT saying that these groups shouldn’t receive significant support—they are the cultural flagships of Canada and as such should be well supported. But what of the smaller arts environment? These groups are struggling to stay alive. From my experience living and working in other countries, it is the small arts events that really defined the artistic landscape—you will always have the big orchestras, operas etc.

    Aradia has just finished its Toronto Arts Council application. We are indeed happy to get a modest sum. But looking at the application form it says that a new applicant, a new professional music organization applying for the first time must have a budget of over $100,000. This is simply not possible—no new group could have this type of budget for years! So, what the TAC is really saying is that they don’t want any, or can’t have any, new applicant. This means that the situation is stagnant. No new enterprises and I can tell you that even the older ones like Aradia are fighting to survive. Grants from all three levels of government are now frozen where they have been for years. (Let’s hope the new increase in arts funding for Toronto goes through.)

    The current government funding levels cannot do anything but keep the small arts organizations at the struggling level. And even though the government’s plan is that the private sector should pick up the slack—they are not doing so, nor do they have any significant tax incentives to do so. (I will gladly take on the argument that the arts shouldn’t have government funding, especially by pointing out what we clearly know, that the arts do in fact generate money.)

    But struggle on we will and must because we are driven with the love of what we do and the vision which we can have, albeit it a limited one because of financial restrictions. Actually I look around with pride at all the small groups and how well they do and what incredible achievements they have, but I do so because I realize the superhuman efforts involved. When I meet these colleagues I see the burn out in their eyes, looking back from the same in my own. (I am sure if any such are reading these words, they are already shaking their heads!)

    John, I suspect you may wonder, given so little significant criticism of Aradia’s part-time nature in your review, why I went on my little rant. But I definitely sense a trend to glorify the big boys – many of whom fail spectacularly, from time to time, even with significant funding – and little awareness of the failing arts environment and lack of support for the struggling arts group. (It doesn’t help Aradia’s cause for you to say that this project wouldn’t have been possible without Tafelmusik!)

    But, I appreciate the review—and indeed this opportunity for some discourse!


  2. Very well put, Kevin. It’s even more difficult for those of us outside Toronto, where we have even scarcer financial resources despite the fact that we have extremely fine musicians living in our communities.

  3. Paul says:

    I always find it amazing, that despite it’s extremely limited budget, Aradia Ensemble and Opera in Concert have actually managed to record four full-length opera recordings for international distribution featuring all-Canadian casts of some of our finest singers, to great reviews; something that the CBC, with all its’ vast resources and studio expertise, have never accomplished. In fact, I have never even heard a single aria from any of these opera recordings played on CBC radio. I think Aradia and Kevin Mallon should be lauded as Canadian cultural heroes for this fact alone, yet they have to scrounge for slim grants every year…

  4. Alcoholics Anonymous says:

    Me, I tink Kev’s a genius…and he’s good and feisty…