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GRAMOPHONE (01/2017)
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Pan Classics 

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Reviewer: Charlotte Gardner

‘A great player at a small expense… Mr Babell…at once gratifies idleness and vanity’ is what the music historian Charles Burney had to say about William Babell, the English composer and organist who achieved fame through performing flashy keyboard transcriptions of popular Handel arias. It must be said that Burney’s wasn’t a universally held view, as Johann Mattheson considered Babell to be a greater organ virtuoso than Handel himself. Time wasn’t on Babell’s side to prove his detractors wrong, though, as he died aged just 33, in 1723, from ‘intemperate habits’.

Perhaps as a result of Babell’s unfortunate (and intriguing) early death, it is his organ and harpsichord arrangements that have headlined his posthumous reputation, so this recording is interesting for drawing attention to the fact that Babell also composed some of the earliest English examples of the solo-instrument concerto with string accompaniment. His Op 3 six-concerto set appears here in a new critical edition by Andrea Friggi that attempts to correct some of the clumsy curiosities of the only surviving source (a manuscript printed three years after Babell’s death). Most particularly, this has removed the ripieno violins, and the result is a light-textured and adaptable one-to-a-part ensemble that’s a perfect match for the concertos’ zip-along chirpiness. Ensemble Odyssee’s own crisply perky readings then fit them like a glove, with Anna Stegmann herself equally on the button, dispatching the almost relentless recorder passagework with fluent ease.

Smart performances aside, though, I haven’t fallen in love with this disc, because to my ears these are one-flavour frothy virtuoso bonbons that bring Burney’s words to mind. So, while they’re certainly very cheerful, you shouldn’t expect to feel moved.


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