Handel Orchestral Works
Over the night of April 13-14, 1959 in St Gabriel’s Church, Cricklewood, a recording session took place, historic in every way, when the young Charles Mackerras conducted a band of 62 wind players plus nine percussionists in Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. With no fewer than 26 oboists topping the ensemble, it was only possible to assemble such a band after all concerts and operas had finished for the day.
They began at 11pm and finished at 2.30 in the morning, yet so far from sounding tired or jaded, the players responded to the unique occasion with a fizzing account of Handel’s six movements. The success of this extraordinary project fully justified Mackerras’s determination to restore the astonishing array of instruments that Handel himself had assembled for the original performance in Green Park in April 1749.
It is thrilling to hear that 1959 recording, at last transferred to CD, with sound that is still of demonstration quality, full and spacious, with a wide stereo spread. It is true that Mackerras takes the introduction to the overture and the ‘Siciliana’ at speeds far slower than he would choose today, but this was a recording which marked a breakthrough in what later developed as the period performance movement. Till then even Mackerras had played along with the conventions of the time, as is witnessed here in the 1956 recordings of the Handel/Harty Water Music suite and the Berenice overture arranged by WG Whittaker, bright, lively performances true to tradition.
As a coupling for the Fireworks Music, Mackerras devised a composite Concerto a due cori which draws on two works written with that title around 1747. It makes a splendid piece, in which the massed horns bray gloriously. Other incidental items included here are the two Fireworks Music Minuets in a mono recording complete with fireworks (which sound rather flat after the full stereo of the main recording) and two so-called concertos for wind and strings, both of which use – in very different ways – the same theme as the one which, more portentously, opens the Fireworks Music.
From the start of his recording career in the 1950s Mackerras was always a conductor who could inspire his players. He was often called in to take on a session when a celebrity such as Klemperer cancelled at the last minute, and in this collection one can consistently see why. Whatever the degree of authenticity, this is an electrifying collection, superbly transferred.