Classical CDs Review

The Arts Desk | Graham Rickson

Handel: Six Concerti Grossi Van Diemen’s Band/Martin Gester (BIS)
I wanted to hear this disc purely on the basis of the group’s name. My instincts didn’t let me down. Martin Gester and Van Diemen’s Band, (based, naturally, in Tasmania) give vibrant accounts of Handel’s Op. 3 Concerti Grossi, works which were never conceived as a set by the composer but were surreptitiously assembled without Handel’s knowledge by a crafty London publisher in 1734. As with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, each one is differently scored and the number of movements varies. These effervescent, joyous readings are consistently entertaining. It’s difficult not to grin upon hearing Gester’s gorgeous organ cadenza, separating the two movements of the D major Concerto No. 6. That the last movement is in D minor makes no obvious sense. Somehow it all hangs together.
There’s some marvellous oboe playing from Jasu Moisio and Ingo Mueller throughout the disc, and Georgia Browne’s recorder solo in Concerto No. 3 is poised and stylish. And the pair of solo violins in No. 2’s first movement – you’ll rarely hear their chattering interplay sounding so musical, and so sweetly integrated into the sound picture. Concerto No. 5’s fleet finale boasts engagingly cheeky bassoons. The list of reasons to acquire this disc could run into several pages. This is eloquent, elegant music making, and the most infectiously upbeat baroque disc I’ve heard in months. BIS’s glowing sound is another highlight, the concertos taped late in 2019 in Sandy Bay, Hobart. A treat.
The Arts Desk January 2022

Early Music Review

Reviewed by D. James Ross

When I spotted this CD of the Handel opus 3 Concerti Grossi on BIS directed by Martin Gester, I wondered if this was the companion album to the opus 6 set by the same director which I had reviewed in 2008, and which has become my favourite account of the Handel opus 6. And indeed it is!

The ensemble may have changed to the punningly named Van Diemen’s Band, but the light, idiomatic touch is the same. Gester’s readings are full of insights and surprises – sometimes tempi are markedly slower than anticipated – but nothing is left to chance here in these wonderfully considered interpretations.

I have loved these and the opus 6 concerti, ever since investing as a child in the wonderful Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ vinyl boxed set, and apart from the move to period instruments and HI performance, it is the innate musicality of these performances which appeals to me most. It is no mean trick to combine impeccable preparation and spontaneity, and this is a feature shared by my much-loved ASMF accounts and these lovely performances.

Somebody once shrewdly observed that all Baroque music is essentially dance music, and this is certainly the case here as the stringed and wind instruments dance through their lines, bringing some of Handel’s finest instrumental music vividly to life. So now I have a new favourite account of Handel’s opus 3 Concerti Grossi.

Early Music Review October 2021

Musicweb International

Reviewed by Dominy Clements

I first encountered Martin Gester’s Handel with the Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (review). This was recorded with the musicians of Arte dei Suonatori in Poland, and for Op 3 he has moved all the way to Australia to direct the cleverly named Van Diemen’s Band. This is a crack ensemble with players whose pedigree extends to ensembles such as Les Arts Florissants and the English Concert, and with BIS’s superlative recording standards we know we are in safe hands from the outset.

Handel’s Op 3 is, as Brian Clark’s booklet notes put it, “little more than a cavalier English publisher’s barely disguised attempt to make some quick money from music by a famous composer.” The dodgy background to this collection and the original sources for most of the concertos are neatly outlined in the booklet, but whatever its origins this opus was a huge success in its time and remains a highly attractive and popular listen today. Performed on period instruments and set in a generous but not over-resonant acoustic, Handel’s music flows with elegant poise in this recording. The spread of sound from concertino to ripieno creates glorious contrasts, Martin Gester’s tempi being brisk without rushing, and allowing us to hear everything without us feeling the need to ‘keep up’ with breathless swiftness of pace. This is not to say that the faster movements are without rhythmic impact or excitement, but the engagement we have is with detailed refinement rather than physical drive.

When it comes to expressive depth, Gester draws excellence from his players without mannered gestures or leaning too heavily on the notes. Phrases are nicely shaped as are individual notes, but the progression of the whole, the narrative value in each movement is paramount. Dramatic moments such as the central Adagio in the D minor Fifth Concerto Grosso balance the feeling of such a movement as an intermezzo as well as its being a statement in its own right. Virtuosity, such as in the final Allegro of the same concerto is taken with unselfconscious but richly entertaining ease, with crisp rhythms but no unnecessary angularity.

There are innumerable options when it comes to recordings of this music, though many are paired with the more extensive Op 6 collection. Of the single-disc period instrument recordings of Op 3, Reinhard Goebel with the Berliner Barock Solisten on the Hänssler Classic label (review) is a good choice, though the sound is a little more distant and homogenised than with Van Diemen’s Band. To my mind the latter wins in terms of character and timbral contrast, though Goebel remains a safe bet. An older recording from the mid 1980s with Hans-Martin Linde and the Linde Consort (review) shows us how far we’ve come in recent decades. This is still a decent enough performance, but you can hear a greater sense of assuredness and tightness of ensemble from both Goebel and Gester, as well as richer sonorities due in part to a more ambitious sonic balance.

There is a fair chance you already have a favourite recording of this music, and only you will know if you want to make space for a new one. Martin Gester hasn’t gone out for spectacle, for something that initially impresses but then becomes fatiguing. Gester’s organ solo in the Sixth Concerto Grosso is very good and played with tasteful ornamentation, the instrument well balanced with the rest of the ensemble but with some gentle mechanical noises audible in the solo. To my ears this BIS recording is ‘a keeper’. It’s the kind of recording which has immediate appeal for many reasons, but is also one that grows on you the more you listen to it, appreciating its fine corners, burnished luminosity and moreish flavours.

Musicweb International July 2021

La Libre (Brussels, Belgium)

Reviewed by François Jongen | May 2021

Après un premier (double) disque consacré aux concerti grossi de l’opus 6 de Haendel, Martin Gester propose cette fois ceux de l’opus 3. Mais le claveciniste a changé de monture : après L’arte dei suonatori, il dirige cette fois un orchestre au nom mystérieux de Van Diemen’s Band, ainsi nommé en référence à Anthony Van Diemen, gouverneur des Indes Orientales Néerlandaises, dont le nom fut un moment donné à cette terre lointaine qui allait être ensuite nommée Tasmanie. C’est que cette formation sur instruments anciens est australienne (et s’excuse d’ailleurs, dans la pochette du disque, des méfaits de la colonisation sur la population locale), ce qui enrichit la carte internationale de la musique ancienne. Très belle lecture, dynamique et vive, qui permet de retrouver avec un plaisir toujours renouvelé ces six concertos emblématiques. N.B.

English translation:

After a first (double) disc devoted to the concerti grossi of Handel’s Opus 6, Martin Gester proposes this time those of Opus 3. But the harpsichordist has changed his mount: after L’arte dei suonatori, this time he conducts an orchestra with the mysterious name of Van Diemen’s Band, so named in reference to Anthony Van Diemen, governor of the Dutch East Indies, whose name was once given to this distant land which was then to be named Tasmania. It is the fact that this period instrument group is Australian (and they apologize, moreover, in the liner notes, for the harms of colonization on the First Nations people), which enriches the international map of early music. Very beautiful reading, dynamic and lively, allowing us to discover these six emblematic concertos with a renewed pleasure.

Music for Several Instruments Blog

Reviewed by Dean Frey

Handel may not have planned this grouping of concertos himself, but the collection we know as Opus 3 is so appealing, so full of invention, so stylish, that it's hard to be too harsh about this result of the oddities of 18th century norms of Intellectual Property. Handel had a most wonderful model for these works - Arcangelo Corelli - and if he borrowed a few melodies, rhythms and harmonies along the way, that's fine, considering the fluidity of authorship at the time. A publisher may have rounded up Handel works willy-nilly into a publishable state, but in spite of this the results are surprising, full of depth and meaning. Umberto Eco's great essay on the movie Casablanca is, I think, relevant:

When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.

Handel's op. 3 collection is a test for any group: staying true to the letter & spirit of the score, while keeping the music sounding fresh and alive. Martin Gester and his Tasmanian group Van Diemen's Band have done exactly that, in this wonderful new album from BIS. There's plenty of fire burning here, but it's within the context of impressive musical discipline and lightly-worn Historically Informed Performance scholarship. BIS provides the kind of direct and transparent sound that allows Early Instruments to flourish. This is a highly recommended release!

Music for Several Instruments Blog May 2021

Expressive Audio

Reviewed by Corin Nelson-Smith

As a fan of Baroque music in general, and in particular works of the Concerto Grosso structure, I was keen to listen to this album featuring the historically complicated and somewhat controversial 6 Concerti Grossi by G.F. Handel, performed by Van Diemen’s Band and conducted by Martin Gester. Founded in 2016, Van Diemen’s Band is based in Tasmania, and includes some of Australia’s best known early music specialists who together have performed around the world with ensembles such as the Academy of Ancient Music, Ensemble Pygmalion, and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. French harpsichordist, organist, pianist and conductor Martin Gester is no stranger to Van Diemen’s Band, having worked with them on multiple occasions before. Gester began his musical career as a singer, and later founded Le Parliament de Musique with whom he specialised in conducting baroque and classical repertoire, often highlighting the links between vocal and instrumental music in his programmes.

This particular collection of Handel’s works was originally put together as part of a cunning plan by one John Walsh, an 18th Century music publisher famous for re-branding and re-publishing sheet music without the permission of the composers as a way to make a quick bit of cash. Twenty years after a successful print of Corelli’s Opus 6, which was particularly popular with amateur musicians around Britain, Walsh took advantage of the fact that the royal protection over Handel’s music was due to expire and strung together a rather mismatched set of his orchestral music, which he re-branded and advertised as Handel’s Opera Terza. To further his deceit, Walsh enticed musicians by claiming that the music had been performed at the wedding ceremony of the Prince of Orange and the Princess Royal of Great Britain in 1727, as well as not disclosing on the title page that each of these pieces requires drastically different orchestration and is thus, as Brian Clark notes in the album insert, almost impossible to perform as a concert set, simply due to the logistical nightmare that would ensue when trying to corral different musicians for each piece, or find musicians happy to play more than one instrument at once! Nevertheless, it became an incredibly popular selection of music, with three editions published and multiple copies surviving in British libraries. 

Coherently collating music drawn from a range of a composer’s catalogue into a work cycle such as this one is a tricky task, and as such is generally left to the composer. One may order the pieces depending on number of instruments, the musical progression, or the narrative the music follows, however Walsh’s first edition of this set was clearly cobbled together, rushed, and printed without much thought to the practicality, or musicality of actually performing it; as I mentioned above, a bit of a “get rich quick” scheme. This album is in fact based on the second edition of the set, which included the addition of Concerto IV, and extra material in Concerto V, however as the published order leads to some rather unorthodox tonal and structural progressions, Martin Gester has wisely chosen to record the music in a different, and much more coherent order.

Van Diemen’s Band perform mesmerisingly, with all the grace and decorum we associate with images of an 18th Century court. Part of what makes the Concerto Grosso such an engaging musical force is the relationship between the concertino (the soloists), the ripieno (accompanying musicians), and the ever present continuo (the harmonic driving force behind the whole piece, generally harpsichord and/or viol). Unsurprisingly, this group of HIP, or Historically Informed Performance, experts handle this relationship effortlessly, highlighting the sparkling dialogue between concertino violins in the second concerto, the delicately beautiful obbligato flute in the third concerto, and the stately doubled strings and oboes in the fourth concerto. The inclusion of the sixth concerto, with an obbligato organ movement in the middle of the set also provides a thought-provoking contrast, harking back to Handel’s use of organ-based orchestral works as interval entertainment between movements of his oratorios. I think it is also prudent to mention the use of period instruments, including the theorbo, a lute style plucked string instrument, and the traverso, a wooden flute common in the Baroque period, which I believe never fails to enhance any baroque recording or performance. Naturally, the performers’ subtler intonation, dynamic control and of course, emotion, all come across in a manner that suitably reflects their wealth of experience and talent, not to mention the fantastically expressive and detailed recording by BIS. 

So, pirated, re-branded, and dubiously re-printed or not, this is still a wonderful collection of some of Handel’s best known and best loved works, performed and recorded remarkably, and therefore a worthy addition to any Baroque lover’s CD collection. 

Expressive Audio Blog June 2021

Daily Mail UK

Reviewed by Tully Potter | June 2021

Tasmanian period-instrument musicians Van Diemen’s Band make their disc debut. They play Handel’s earlier set of Concerti Grossi with true Australian breeziness but due attention to subtleties and rhythmic verve. The recording quality is absolutely super. This SACD will do you proud. (5 stars)

France Musiques, En Pistes! (Radio Review)

Reviewed by Rodolphe Bruneau-Boulmier | June 2021

Voici une nouvelle version, très belle version [une compilation des six concerti grossi de Handel]. Martin Gester prévient dans la notice de ce disque. On peut faire beaucoup de chose avec ces concerti grossi de Handel. Ils ont d’ailleurs pris la liberté de les présenter sous une autre forme à notre goût selon une logique qui soit celle plutôt de concert plutôt que la simple lecture d’une publication nous proposons ainsi une plus grande cohérence tonale. Alors « ils », qui sont « ils » ? 

« Ils » sont basés dans l’état insulaire sauvage et préservé de Tasmanie à l’extrémité sud de l’Australie, c’est l’ensemble, Van Diemen’s Band, on ne le connaît pas très bien c’est un jeune ensemble formé en 2016 et ils ont invité notre musicien français, Martin Gester, comme musicien permanent pour venir les diriger…

Je vous avoue j’ai écouté ça au début sans me dire que ça aller me passionné et je trouvais ce version remarquable, des six concertis grossis de Handel…..

“Here is a new version, a very beautiful version……

I have to admit to you that at the start I didn’t think I would find it very interesting, and I found this version remarkable.” 

France Musiques, En Pistes! (Radio Review)

The Australian

Reviewed by Vincent Plush | July 2021

Hallelujah! Any album release by Van Diemen’s Band is cause for rejoicing, no more so than this splendid release of six concerti grossi by Handel, diverse pieces assembled from the 1720’s. No prizes for guessing where this band is based; VDB is the 2016 brainchild of that irrepressibly imaginative violinist Julia Fredersdorff.

Here she has assembled 16  Baroque specialists – familiar names from most Australian capitals – and has attracted the leading French keyboard player Martin Gester to direct the enterprise. Recorded in St Canice’s Church Sandy Bay, in late 2019, the surround sound is simply stunning, drawing out the sparkling electricity of the playing.

Sprightly, animated and ingratiating, these often dazzling performances can surely take pride of place alongside the best international Baroque recordings from recent decades (4 & ½ stars).

Limelight Magazine

Reviewed by Steve Moffat | July 2021

Australia is blessed with more than its fair share of top shelf early music bands able to stand their own against stiff international competition. One of the newer kids on the block is Tasmania’s Van Diemens Band, which can draw on talent from both home and away, and does so with its superb debut recording for the Swedish BIS label featuring Handel’s six Op. 3 Concerti Grossi under the direction of French organist Martin Gester.

Music publisher John Walsh was a bit of an 18th-century Cockney “wide boy”. He famously issued a pirated version of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, and when royal protection of Handel’s output was set to expire in 1720 Walsh cashed in by assembling a mix-match of these concerti.

“Whether or not the composer played any part in the collation and publication… the fact remains that Op. 3 contains some of Handel’s best loved music,” writes Brian Clark in the liner notes.

Walsh didn’t get away with everything, however – Francesco Geminiani sued him and won the right to inspect the pre-print proofs of his works. But as Clark says, Op. 3’s lasting popularity shows that Walsh’s “nose for success was surely the finest in 18th-century England”.

The playing is top-notch throughout – listen to the twin oboes of Jasu Moisio and Ingo Muller in the opener No 2, as well as Gester’s organ solo in No 6, all driven tightly by artistic director Julia Fredersdorff and her mentor Lucinda Moon as principal second violin. This recording is as good as it gets.

Limelight Magazine July 2021


Reviewed by John Weretka

“An almost-forgotten composer and a city the musical culture of which is still to be appreciated fully get the best possible treatment in this disc of cello concertos from eighteenth-century Naples.”

The old saw goes that ‘there’s a reason you’ve never heard of X’. But if the early music movement has taught us anything at all, it’s how wrong that is. Cello napoletano is absolutely a case in point. The great doyen of Neapolitan composers, Alessandro Scarlatti, is represented on the disc by the sinfonia to his 1702 serenata Clori, Dorino e Amore and Francesco Geminiani’s extremely brief residency in the city between 1711 and 1714 is marked by the inclusion of his concerto grosso in E minor Op. 3 No 3. The lion’s share of the disc, however, goes to violinist, composer, and instructor at the conservatory of S. Maria di Loreto Nicola Fiorenza, four of whose cello concertos and one of whose trio sonatas grace the disc. If you don’t know who Nicola Fiorenza is, then you’d be forgiven — it seems that history almost didn’t know who he was, either. His appointment to the staff of the conservatory in 1743, perhaps the position that launched his career, happened through the unorthodox means of a blind ballot. While Fate’s selection of him probably caused the governor of the conservatory some heartache — he reportedly beat students at the conservatory and drew his sword on them — we can rejoice: this is clearly a major composer active in the period that for English-speaking listeners is dominated by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and everything on this disc is a real delight and pleasure. Another discovery to be made on this disc is that of the musical culture of the city of Naples itself. Listeners will probably know the names of the two Scarlattis, although Domenico actually passed most of his career outside the city, and probably that of Pergolesi, if not least for the Stabat mater. But how many know the music of a Porpora, let alone the lesser lights of a Durante, Leo, Feo or Jommelli, all of whom called the city home, or, indeed, the vast repertoire of Neapolitan opera seria and opera in dialect?

Nominally at least Fiorenza’s concertos should be compared with those of Leonardo Leo (recorded on Brilliant Classics CD 93681), written at roughly the same time as Fiorenza’s. These composers represent the twin poles of Neapolitan musical expression in the eighteenth century, from the learned and rather dry style of Leo (the cello concertos contain a number of fugal movements) to the often ravishing cantilenas of Fiorenza, whether in slow or fast movements. Like his contemporaries Corelli and Caldara, melodies just seem to pour from Fiorenza, but he was also clearly a liberal thinker about form in a way that is sometimes absent from his great contemporary, Vivaldi. Although the cello concertos are cast in the mould of a sonata da chiesa, Fiorenza will depart happily from the standard recipe, for example in the opening movement of the concerto in F major that opens this disc, with its fast and slow sections of completely contrasting character.

The last and greatest discovery on this CD is the performers. Van Diemen’s Band, based in Tasmania (and hopefully a sign of the leadership Tasmania will come to assume in cultural affairs in Australia), has been on my radar for some time, but this is my first exposure to their music making. Led by Julie Fredersdorff, the ensemble brings together many of the most significant names in early music in Australia — Lucinda Moon, Lizzy Welsh, Deirdre Dowling, Kirsty McCahon, Laura Vaughan and Donald Nicholson — and maturity of their sustained relationship in many different ensembles, including in chamber music, is evident. This is taut, disciplined playing, sustained by a single vision of what the music will be, whether in accompaniment settings or in the works by Scarlatti and Geminiani that they play alone. Their rich and vibrant sound, the product of just thirteen players, is admirably captured in the ballroom of Government House in Hobart by Alex Stinson. To my eternal shame, this is also the first time I have encountered the musicianship of Catherine Jones, a Perth native who has gone on to have a significant career in Europe. Fiorenza gets the most sympathetic reader of his music imaginable in her — she clearly loves the numerous opportunities the composer gives for sustained legato playing in aria-form movements, but she never lets the focus on fine sound production drop when the going gets tougher in fast movements. Music and performers meet on this disc in near-perfect synthesis. A pleasure from beginning to end, and with discoveries to be made constantly along the way, this recording is highly recommended.

Loudmouth December 2017

Limelight Magazine

Reviewed by Paul Ballam-Cross

The majority of this release is made up of cello concerti by the Neapolitan composer Nicola Fiorenza. In the mid-18th century, Fiorenza became the head of strings at the Santa Maria di Loreto conservatory in Naples. However, he apparently wound up with the job only by chance. Several other candidates were seen as equally fine, and the board decided to appoint using the age-old system of picking a name out of a hat. On this occasion, Fiorenza was lucky enough to be the one chosen.

But if you think that might imply his music isn’t any good, on the contrary, it simply shows how high the quality of Neapolitan music-making must have been, for there is certainly never a dull moment in Fiorenza’s compositions. Stylistically, he sits neatly in the gap between the late Baroque and the very early Classical. The Concerto in B Flat, for instance, is most definitely from the Baroque, but the Concerto in D ‘with violetta’ is written in the galant style of the late 18th century. Fiorenza was clearly well aware of changes in musical fashion.

The star here is cellist Catherine Jones, who displays a warm-toned virtuosity in the four Fiorenza concerti. Making light work of the technical demands, Van Diemen’s Band (bravo to whoever came up with the name!) accompany exquisitely throughout. There are also a couple of tracks included by Alessandro Scarlatti (the Sinfonia to CloriDorino e Amore) and also Francesco Geminiani (his Concerto Grosso in E Minor Op. 3 No 3), both of whom had some connection, however brief, to Naples. These pieces are all played beautifully, but the main focus of the CD is definitely on Fiorenza’s music and Jones’ playing. An excellent recording of rarely-heard concerti, and a must for all fans of the Baroque.

Limelight Magazine March 2018