HANDEL Music for the Royal Fireworks
The Italian ensemble Zefiro, directed by oboist Alfredo Bernardini, specialise in 18th-century music that gives prominence towards wind instruments. This lends itself to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, written for the public celebrations of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in London’s Green Park (1749). Zefiro play the grand Ouverture with the perfect synthesis of splendour and dance-like charisma (too many versions possess too little of the latter). “La réjouissance” trips along lightly without a hint of clumsiness, but still has ample juicy magnificence. There are several other good recordings available, but this zesty and fluid performance is a welcome change from stodgy readings in which everything is hammered home mercilessly. Zefiro bring a marvellous sense of light and shade to this music.
Maybe Bernardini’s sparkling and communicative approach would have been too subtle for the great British outdoors in 1749, but it is curious that this beautifully engineered recording was made outside in the cloisters of a former Jesuit college in Sicily. Zefiro also perform all three of the Concerti per due cori (1747-48) that Handel arranged for orchestra and two “choirs” of woodwind and brass. These were intended as entr’actes in oratorio concerts, and it is fun to play “name that tune” (choruses pop up from Messiah, Esther, Belshazzar and other works, but one of the most effective and colourful movements is taken from an opera aria in Partenope). These shapely performances are phrased and paced to perfection, and exploit an enjoyable range of instrumental colours (whether oboe trios or bucolic horns, almost everything here feels right).
This is one of the most enjoyable discs of Handel’s orchestral music to have come my way in a long time, and gives the outstanding benchmark version of this particular coupling by Tafelmusik a serious run for its money (Sony, 10/98 – sadly nla). If you might have become jaded to the appeal of this music, try Zefiro for a breath of fresh air.