The Combattimento Consort Amsterdam gave a robust concert of Baroque repertoire last weekend in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Presenting an ambitious program of concerti grossi by George Frideric Handel and one particularly humorous organ concerto by the little-known English composer John Stanley, this fine ensemble drew a stark contrast to what we usually expect in the Baroque field today.

The Concerti Grossi of Handel are particularly precious works in the Baroque repertoire, serving to showcase the passing of musical material between one, rather small, group of soloists and a full orchestra. The ensemble pulled a little trick on the audience, taking its soloists off the stage at one point and having them play in the hallway, offering the impression of an echo heard in the distance.

The gem of the afternoon was surely the Stanley organ concerto, showcasing the leader of the group, Pieter Dirksen. Superb in his technical abilities and executed with the right amount of wit and grace, Dirksen’s sensitivity and “dusting off” of such a work was much appreciated and well received. An interesting side-note on Mr. Stanley is that he was in fact virtually blind throughout his life due to an accident during childhood. Yet while working in England he was still able to direct oratorios of Handel (making this a clever programming juxtaposition). Facing such a challenge, it’s no wonder that this composer committed nearly everything he learned to memory.

Playing mostly on classical or modern style instruments, the delicacy of the Baroque gestures was often lost on me. It’s a question of taste and ultimately of personal choice, but the use of modern wind and string instruments offers a sound better suited to the music of Mahler than to Handel. I must give them credit where credit is due. In such a hall it is hard to not get trapped by such a large sound. They are, indeed, concerti grossi. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t also have their fair share of delicacy and variation. I believe it to be a misinterpretation of the word “grossi” to play these works with the idea that it must all be aggressive and unevenly dramatic.

There is perhaps the argument that it shouldn’t matter what kind of instruments we play Baroque music on. It’s true after all that modern-day orchestras use virtually the same instruments to play repertoire ranging from Brahms to Debussy, then Schoenberg and back to Bach again. However, this is denying the fact that during the 19th century, and arguably starting in the late 18th century, the construction of musical instruments was changing, makers adapting to the demand for a more streamline, in-tune and equal sonority. Therefore the emergence of keys on wind instruments, where only one was necessary before on flutes and oboes, starts to become common, allowing the adjustment of enharmonic shifts to suit an equally tempered piano.

Handel himself lived from 1685 to 1759, well before the dramatic reconstructions of the instruments of the orchestra. Strings players played with chins off the instrument (yes, that means no rest for the wicked!) and on gut strings, which offer an entirely different sonority than the typical steel used in modern orchestras. Wind players of the time, equipped with perhaps a boxwood flute or oboe with only one key, would never be able to battle 20 modern string players but would still be able to keep a certain blend and character.

In a country like the Netherlands so rich with resources, instruments, musicians and an audience keenly passionate about the discovery and preservation of Baroque performance practice, I find it a shame to witness a concert grossly irreverent of context. At its best it was a fine day of music for the sake of experiencing old repertoire in a new way. However, for this Baroque stickler, I couldn’t help but wonder how things could have been different.