Handel's Water MusicHandel's Water Music

The Gramophone Choice

Couple with Music for the Royal Fireworks

Simon Standage, Elizabeth Wilcock vns The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock hpd

Archiv 477 756-2GOR (52' · DDD) Buy from Amazon

It’s unlikely that George I ever witnessed performances that live up to this one. They are sparkling, tempi are well judged and there’s a truly majestic sweep to the opening F major French overture. That gets things off to a fine start but what follows is no less compelling, with some notably fine woodwind-playing. 

In the D major music it’s the brass department that steals the show and here, horns and trumpets acquit themselves with distinction. Archiv has achieved a particularly satisfying sound in which all strands of the orchestral texture can be heard with clarity. In this suite the ceremonial atmosphere comes over particularly well, with resonant brass-playing complemented by crisply articulated oboes. 

The G major pieces are quite different from those in the previous groups, being lighter in texture and more closely dance-orientated. They are among the most engaging in the Water Music and especially, perhaps, the two little ‘country dances’, the boisterous character of which Pinnock captures nicely. 

 

Additional Recommendations

Couple with Music for the Royal Fireworks

L’Arte dell’Arco / Federico Guglielmo vn 

CPO CPO777 312-2 (66’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon

The tradition of dividing the Water Music into three separate suites dates back to the 1950s. The suspicion that Handel envisaged it as one long sequence of movements has informed a couple of fine recordings but this disc by L’Arte dell’Arco is the first such recording to be made since the earliest surviving manuscript copy of the music (dating from 1718) was rediscovered in 2004.

The strings play with polish and alertness. Federico Guglielmo leads proceedings expertly from the violin; his few solo flourishes are direct yet courtly. The famous Hornpipe is splendidly done, with a radiant balance between the pairs of trumpets and horns (who relish some tasteful ornaments in the da capo), and lovely solo fiddle-playing during the middle section.

Generally these performances are pleasantly contoured, though the continuo team occasionally become intrusive in faster music. However, it is good to hear musicians confident enough to play the Lentement more slowly than has become common. The Bourrée is thrillingly quick. The Country Dance sparkles with conviviality, although the recorder is a little uneven.

The Overture from the Music for the Royal Fireworks is given a vibrant and engaging performance. Guglielmo and his forces achieve the rare feat of ensuring that ‘La Réjouissance’ is coherently shaped. CPO’s translator of the booklet has done a poor job of what seems to have been an interesting note by Guglielmo (‘cembalo’ is consistently mistranslated as ‘cymbals’!).

 

DVD Recommendation

‘Water Music – Recreating a Royal Spectacular’

The English Concert / Andrew Manze

Video director Fergus O’Brien

BBC/Opus Arte DVD OA0930D (78’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · N/s) Buy from Amazon

This documentary’s hypothesis for where, how and why Handel performed his famous orchestral suites on the Thames makes for enjoyable viewing. Social historian Philippa Glanville presents two documents that describe the original event in 1717 (although both have been familiar to Handelians since they were reprinted in 1955). Political historian Jeremy Black takes us around Greenwich and Venice looking for clues to a possible political agenda for the barge party, comparing it to the spectacular ceremonies of La Serenissima that might have captured the imaginations of impressionable young Englishmen on the Grand Tour. A barge is given a makeover so that it resembles what Handel’s musicians might have floated on. The soundtrack of the orchestra’s trip down the Thames is obviously a studio recording with superimposed sound effects of river noises, although an acoustician tests some of the English Concert’s players on the river to prove scientifically that Handel knew what he was doing when orchestrating the music.

The only missing ingredient in this reconstruction project is the involvement of a music historian. There is no discussion of the Water Music’s context within Handel’s fascinating career. Andrew Manze’s presence gives musical muscle; but it is a welcome corrective that the booklet features an essay by Donald Burrows which manages to cover all the missing elements while gently amending a few of the documentary’s less convincing conjectures.

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