THE setting was ideal: the magnificent Baroque Church of St. Agnese in Rome's Piazza Navona, with its huge columns and pilasters of green malachite trimmed in gold leaf. The music was most unusual: a Flute Concerto by George Friedrich Handel which had lain dormant almost since the day it was composed in 1747. Even the performing forces were exceptional: the Ensemble Stradivari di Roma - 14 musicians who play string instruments made in Cremona in the early 1700s by Stradivari and colleagues.
While the Church of St. Agnese is grandiose in design, its cupola rising high over an all-encompassing dome, the atmosphere for a concert is intimate, since it seats slightly less than 200 people. As Severino Gazzelloni walked out to the stage, solid-gold flute in hand, a hush fell over the audience. No sooner had he played the opening measures than it became evident that, after 250 years of total obscurity, this Flute Concerto was, indeed, a major instrumental work by Handel, one worthy of the great composer.
Cast in four movements - Adagio, Allegro, Largo, Allegro - the concerto won the favor of the audience, which demanded an encore of the langorously beautiful Largo, and then a repeat of the highly rhythmical, musically captivating Allegro, a closing movement as joyous as its title, its melody in memory long after the performance.
This concert, sponsored by the Academia Barocca (the first of its 21st Festival of Baroque Music), revealed that this find was indeed an important one. The story of its discovery starts in 1975, when Marcello Peca, the conductor of the Ensemble Stradivari, was searching for flute music in the library of the Ducal Palace in Karlsruhe, West Germany. Mr. Peca was aware that Grand Duke Charles Frederick, a conscientious and liberal leader who ruled Baden-W"urttenberg from 1738 to 1811, was a great fan of flute music and quite an accomplished performer on the instrument. Charles Frederick's collection of music, now housed in the archives of the Ducal Palace, contains - as Peca had expected - copies of works by all the great flute composers of the time: Pietro Nardi, Fran,cois Devienne, Pietro Locatelli, and Antonio Vivaldi, among others.
To Peca's amazement, there, among the neat folios of 17th- and 18th-century concertos and sonatas, was a second violin part with the handwritten heading ``Handel Concerto for Flute.'' This intrigued Peca, for up to then it had been thought that Handel never wrote a flute concerto. Peca reasoned that if a second violin part existed, a complete set of parts and a conductor's score must be somewhere. Search as he might, though, he could find no further trace of the concerto at the archives in Karlsruhe.
For 10 years Peca searched the libraries of Europe whenever he had a moment free from concertizing, but was thwarted at every turn in his search. Then one day he came across a strange anomaly - a ``Flute Concerto in D Major,'' listed in a library catalog under a name he had never encountered before. Peca asked to look at the folio. What the librarian placed before him exceeded his hopes: an autograph score in Handel's own hand of a ``Concerto in D Major for flute, orchestra, and harpsichord.''
As he later reconstructed in a scenario of the score's acquisition by the library in the 18th century, the librarian had catalogued it under the name of the former owner of the music rather than under the name of its composer, and thus the score had remained buried for almost 250 years.
Measure by measure, Peca copied out the score, because the original had become too faint to be photographed or photocopied. Missing measures in the viola part had to be added where they were illegible or missing and a keyboard part constructed from scratch.
``What was it like the first time he actually played through the concerto?
``The experience was unbelievable,'' Peca relates with awe. ``After all, experience has shown that most pieces of `forgotten' or `lost' music were really forgotten for a reason, mainly because many were of mediocre quality .... But here we knew we had made a major discovery, a work in which the slow movement is permeated with a flute melody of ineffable beauty.''
The city where the score was found? The original owner's name under which it had been filed? ``I wouldn't reveal it if I remembered,'' Peca relates evasively, for having made this important discovery he prefers, somewhat selfishly, to remain its custodian. ``If someone wants to perform it, all they have to do is ask me for a copy.''
Are there plans to publish it? ``No,'' he says, ``but Bongiovanni Records [in Italy] has recorded tonight's performance and will soon release it worldwide on CDs.''