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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Water Music (HWV 348-350)

Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble
Dir: Marc Minkowski

rec: Jan 2010, Grenoble, MC2
Nave - V 5234 ( 2010) (67'32")

The Water Music is one of the most famous and best-known compositions of George Frideric Handel. Even people who have no real interest in classical music will probably recognize at least some movements from this work. Surprisingly we know not that much about how exactly it was performed in Handel's own time. And although we know that it was first performed in 1717 on a barge on the river Thames in the presence of King George I, there is no certainty that it was written as a unity for this specific occasion. The fact that no score of the Water Music has ever been found suggests it was perhaps a more or less random collection of pieces put together for the occasion.

The lack of an autograph score also makes it hard to know for sure in what order the movements were originally performed. For a long time the Water Music was divided into three suites, according to key and scoring. But Christopher Hogwood has done some research and proposes to follow the order which has been given in the editions of Arnold (1788) and Chrysander (1886). In this recording under the direction of Marc Minkowski the old order of three suites is followed, with one important difference. Whereas in other recordings the Suite in F is followed by the Suite in D and the Suite in G comes last, in this recording the latter two have changed places, "because a strange force polarises this succession of individual pieces, and that force is the one that drove the composer throughout his career: the drama", Ivan A. Alexandre writes in his liner-notes.

He goes on to explain the concept. "A drama without characters or action, nor indeed anything specifically theatrical about it. But why, for example, should one choose to begin a suite of outdoor music with a bipartite Ouverture scored for concertante violins that is so very close to the norm of the operatic overture? Such an opening gesture seems naturally to cry out for the three acts to follow: Act I in F, a more introspective Act II in G, and a 'happy ending' glittering with trumpets in D."

I can't find this reasoning very convincing. An overture like this was a conventional form which had its origins in the theatre music of Jean Baptiste Lully, and then developed into the first movement of overture-suites as they were frequently written by German composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. So the very fact that a piece starts with a bipartite overture is no indication at all that it has anything to do with the theatre. And as the whole division of the Water Music into three suites seems historically unfounded, the concept which is followed here is rather speculative. Musically speaking I can't see any benefits either. This concept also was the reason to add the instrumental suite with which Handel's first Italian opera Rodrigo begins rather than the Music for the Royal Fireworks as in most recordings.

The performance offers much to enjoy. The suite from Rodrigo is generally played quite well. The sarabande is especially beautifully executed, and so is the closing passacaglia, with a nice violin solo, probably played by the orchestra's leader, Thibault Noally. In the Water Music the movements with brass are most satisfying. The players of the trumpets and the horns deserve praise for their brilliant and technically impressive performances. The solo parts for the transverse flute and the recorder in the Suite in G come off well. In the first movement of this suite the flautist adds quite a lot of ornaments - stylish and nicely played, but probably a bit overdone. The tempo of this movement is remarkably slow, and that also goes for the air from the Suite in F and the lentement from the Suite in D. The opening movement of the latter suite ends with a long cadenza for the harpsichord - quite odd, in particular considering that the King at his barge on the Thames probably wouldn't have heard it. The movements with strings alone are less convincing. Although the body of strings is quite large - 14 violins, four violas, four cellos and three double basses - they don't have enough presence, and their sound is a little flat as well. I also would have liked larger dynamic contrasts. The oboes are also a bit pale.

Although there is much to enjoy, the recording as a whole doesn't really convince.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble


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