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George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Water Music, HWV 348-350
Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351
Tafelmusic/Jeanne Lamon
Date and location of recording not specified


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This coupling of Handel favourites is easily as recommendable as the two-disc set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from the same forces I reviewed recently. The playing is equally accomplished, the recording equally fine and the booklet equally uninformative. Let’s start there, with the excellent essay by Julian Haylock. He gives lots of interesting information about the composer and his career, carefully setting the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks in context, but there is nothing in way of descriptive notes about the music itself. There is a track listing, but apart from a couple of photographs, no information about the artists nor the circumstances of the recording. And nothing at all for those who can’t read English.

As for the performances, these too are very similar in approach to the Brandenburg set. Tafelmusik, under their director, Jeanne Lamon, are an extremely accomplished ensemble from Canada who need not fear comparison with the best of other groups. In these performances the tempi chosen seem to me near-ideal: in general the music is taken quickly, but there is no feeling of being hurried, either from a player’s or a listener’s point of view, which is refreshing when so much of the period performance movement, even today, seems bound up with rapid tempi. In only one or two of the slower pieces, perhaps, the music might have been given a little more time to breathe – the well-known Air from the Water Music, for example – but on the whole the tempi, so important in Baroque music, and so difficult, demonstrate both care and common sense. The playing of the group is outstanding, extremely sonorous when playing together and with all the virtuosity required when individual players are featured. The horn playing is perhaps particularly impressive. The two works are given complete, and all the most famous set pieces come off very well. All in all a most recommendable disc at a bargain price.

I was less troubled here by the lack of a strongly identifiable personality in the playing than I was when I heard the companion Bach disc, but listening to other performances I started to wonder again. Raymond Leppard’s reading with the English Chamber Orchestra, last available on Eloquence, is of course played on modern instruments, and direct comparisons are therefore not really valid. All the same, the music seems to have more purpose here, it’s raison-d’être more clearly defined. It sounds more mellifluous, of course, which will be a point scored against it for many listeners. A totally different approach is that of the Catalan Jordi Savall with his group Le Concert des Nations on Auvidis Fontalis. There is a wildness here which is as different from Tafelmusik as it is from Leppard, and the sheer sound of the group – braying horns and all – is perhaps more historically accurate, given the circumstances of the first performances. The playing is certainly less polished than in either of the other two versions, but what it lacks in refinement – and one shouldn’t make too much of this – it more than makes up for in fire. Listeners seeking something closer to perfection will be happier with Tafelmusik, I think. In any event both Leppard and Savall in their different ways generate more cumulative excitement in the Fireworks Music overture than Tafelmusik manages, which is one of the reasons why I ultimately prefer them both to this nonetheless excellent reissue.

William Hedley

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