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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Water & Fireworks Music

[I] "Water Music - Music for the Royal Fireworks"
L'Arte dell'Arcoa
Dir: Federico Guglielmo

rec: Oct 12 - 14, 2004, Chiuppano (Vi), Auditorium
CPO - 777 312-2 (© 2008) (66'05")

[II] "Water Music"
Concerto Kölnb

rec: May 13 - 16, 2007, Cologne, Studio Stolberger Straße
Berlin Classics - 0016172BC (© 2008) (62'22")

Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)a; Sinfonia in B flat (HWV 339)b; Sinfonia in B flat (HWV 347)b; Water Music (HWV 348-350)ab

When Handel arrived in England it didn't last long until he was asked to compose music for royal and state occasions. Most of the repertoire in this category is vocal. The two main instrumental works which are associated with the monarchy are the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, in short the 'Fireworks Music'.

The Water Music was first performed in July 1717 by 50 musicians on a barge on the river Thames, with King George I listening on another barge with some close friends. For a long time this work was performed as a series of three suites with a homogeneous instrumentation. L'Arte dell'Arco, in its recording, follows the order which is thought to be original, based on recent research by Christopher Hogwood (who, in his own recording with The Academy of Ancient Music, also played the work as three independent suites).

The Music for the Royal Fireworks is of a much later date. It was performed in April 1749 for the fireworks which were part of the celebrations of the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Originally the piece was conceived for a large wand band with additional percussion. For later performances Handel added instructions as to which parts the strings should play. Today few recordings use the original number of wind instruments, and here L'Arte dell'Arco plays the 'Fireworks Music' with wind and strings.

Both works are available in a considerable number of recordings. I don't know how many of these perform the movements of the Water Music in the order in which they are played here. If not, the CD player can solve this 'problem'. Even without knowing all recordings on period instruments I am pretty sure this recording isn't surpassing the best as it is largely unsatisfying and disappointing.

In the programme notes Federico Guglielmo writes about his decisions in regard to the scoring of the orchestra. After admitting that it is not impossible to reconstruct the "pharaonic ensembles of the initial performances" he writes: "We have opted to decide on a performance that is 'virtually enclosed' within a modern auditorium that allows for the lucidity and brilliance of the sound, enables an homogenous [sic] distribution between wind and bowed string instruments and guarantees extreme equilibrium and clarity around every instrumental section". So what we get here is a kind of performance the composer never had in mind and nobody in his time has ever heard. Historical considerations apart, I don't hear anything which is better than what is on offer in the existing recordings I know.

The virtues of this scoring as pointed out by Federico Guglielmo are largely nullified by the unfavourable acoustics. I have no idea why this particular venue has been chosen to record these works which were both written for and performed under acoustical circumstances which were pretty much the opposite of what we have here. In the dry acoustics of the recording venue the instruments never get the chance to really blossom. This, and the small number of instruments used here give the impression of a pocket-sized performance. All the grandeur which one associates with this music - and which was no doubt intended by the composer and expected by the audiences - is absent.

In addition the playing is often outright boring. The menuets are mostly hardly recognizable as such because of a lack of accents; it is all rather flat. And that is a general feature of the performance of the Water Music. Some tempi are too slow, like the andante (track 4). Rarely have I heard such a dull performance of the trio to the Minuet for the French horn as here. In the menuet from what in some recordings is called the 'Flute Suite' the player of the transverse flute is adding a lot of ornaments - not always good ones, and definitely out of place here, in particular as it is virtually the only place where this practice is applied.

For some reason the interpretation of the Fireworks Music is a good deal better. That doesn't mean it can compete with the competition, in particular as the size of the ensemble is too small.

One probably is inclined to expect a more exciting performance from an Italian orchestra. Admittedly, L'Arte dell'Arco is arguably not one of the best in the business, but still I had expected a more fiery and daring interpretation. The reality is that this is a rather dull affair, and there is no reason to recommend this disc. It adds nothing worthwhile to the catalogue.

In contrast Concerto Köln is considered one of the world's best baroque orchestras, although the results are a bit dependent of who is in charge. Normally the orchestra plays without a conductor, and one may assume it is mostly the leader who is directing the ensemble. Since a couple of years this position is taken by the renowned violinist Anton Steck.

That in itself is no guarantee for a really good and convincing interpretation of one of the most popular compositions of the baroque era. The ensemble consists of approximately the same number of players as L'Arte dell'Arco and although the acoustics are better the performance is not. Concerto Köln's playing is more energetic and technically more assured - boring it is certainly not, but there are too many idiosyncrasies of a doubtful nature to make this a recommendable recording.

Whereas L'Arte dell'Arco take the results of Christopher Hogwood's research into account, Concerto Köln plays the Water Music in three suites. While l'Arte dell'Arco is often too slow, Concerto Köln tends to rush, and one wonders how much the king may have heard if the music had been played as fast as Concerto Köln sometimes does.

What is really odd is the role of the harpsichord. It is very doubtful whether in the original performance a harpsichord was used at all, but even more doubtful is how much the various sections of the orchestra would have heard it, if it had been part of the performances. Maybe this is the reason why Concerto Köln decided to make a lot of noise in the realisation of the basso continuo. And so we hear the harpsichordist being extremely busy playing as many notes as possible, for instance in the third track (a movement with no tempo indication). But what on earth was the reason to play the air from the Suite in F (track 7) as a solo for the harpsichord, then repeated by the orchestra? In the bourrée (track 9) the strings play pizzicato in the repeat. Elsewhere there is an abundance of ornamentation, and as much as adding ornaments is important in baroque music, there is no reason to get overboard - and that is what happens here. It goes wrong right from the start as the number of appoggiaturas in the largo from the Overture is highly exaggerated. I am also surprised that in several movements there is a lack of differentiation between the good and the bad notes.

Concerto Köln adds two interesting pieces. The Sinfonia in B flat (HWV 339) seems to be from Handel's time in Hamburg, the Sinfonia in B flat (HWV 347) from later in his career as it contains well-known melodic material. Both pieces are played well, and I certainly enjoyed them more than the performance of the Water Music.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Concerto Köln

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