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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Water Music (1717)
Suite No. 1 (Suite in F major, HWV 348)
Suite No. 2 (Suite in G major, HWV 350)
Trumpet Suite No. 3 (Suite in D major, HWV 349)
Consort of London/Robert Haydon Clark
Recorded 1989 (Originally issued on Collins Classics)


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This recording was originally issued on Collins Classics in 1990 and when it was first issued it was reviewed in The Gramophone as 'the best middle-of-the-road recording of this music to date'. Despite their name, the Consort of London play on modern instruments. But some musicological thought has obviously gone into these performances. The three suites (confusingly labelled 1, 2 and 3) are played in the most sensible order with the quieter Suite in G in the middle. We know surprisingly little about the first performance of these works, so it is sensible to order them in a way that works musically. The Suite in F is concluded with two movements from the Suite in D which Handel re-arranged into F major. As these are the only two movements that we possess in Handel's manuscript, it is good that we can hear them and they make a fitting conclusion to the otherwise rather open ended Suite in F.

Care has also been taken with the sound of the group. You only have to listen to the opening to chords of the Overture to the Suite in F to realise this. Crisply played, double dotted with plenty of air between the notes. This is stylish playing, well aware of the fine stylistic line that must be trodden if you want to bring off a performance on modern instruments that is period aware. No attempt is made to try and recreate the original performances, so we have no improvised drum part (the presence of trumpets would imply that drums might have been used). The performance here includes a harpsichord. No mention is made of a harpsichord in the original performances (harpsichords probably do not mix very well with rather damp barges), but by the 1720s performances of the Water Music were including a harpsichord. Where the performers here fall down is in the actual sound of the harpsichord. The instrument used is either not beefy enough for the modern instruments or its sound was deliberately recessed on the recording. Either way, what we have is a rather distressing tinkly sound that only really functions as a continuo in the quieter movements. In fact, it has been suggested that the quieter, G major Suite would have been played on dry land whilst the King was at supper and in this case, could quite easily have included a harpsichord.

The graceful oboist embellishes the solo line in the Andante and Staccato movement, but generally there is little ornamentation, which is a shame. The performance gives full value to all of Handel's repeats, so it would have been rather nice if they had had the courage to vary them as well. The string and wind playing is admirably crisp and well articulated. The orchestra has a suitably lean tone which suits the music well. The strings generally play the notes in a stylised, detached, marcato manner which is eminently suitable for trying to make this music work on modern instruments. From the very opening the band sounds stylish and very period aware, with minimum vibrato from the strings. Marriner's Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields make a far lusher string sound. You only have to compare the opening movements to hear a radical difference. Not only is Marriner far slower, but his performance is much more romantic. Haydon Clark's tempos are generally on the steady side, particularly when compared to Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on Telarc. Mackerras often favours quite brisk tempos. Too often Haydon Clark's Consort of London sound as if they are plodding steadily rather than shaping the music. Their stylised delivery can get a little wearing at a steady tempo. The band seem to be at their best in the more lively movements.

But the difference between the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Consort of London is more than just one of tempo. Mackerras's group turn in performances which are stylish and crisp but have a shapeliness and lilt that are missing from the Consort of London. To my ear, this was particularly true of the bass lines where the Consort of London do rather plod. But the Orchestra of St. Luke's do not get everything their own way and when it comes to balance, the Consort of London deliver a distinctly preferable woodwind-led sound, as compared to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s rather string dominated sound.

If you are thinking of buying a Water Music on modern instruments then I would advise trying to listen to Mackerras and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s as well as this one. But the differences between the two recordings are, to a certain extent, ones of taste so you may disagree with me. Either way, if you buy this CD you won't go too wrong and it represents excellent value. Be warned though, the track numbering is a little eccentric and there is no booklet at all. Do the publishers think that with a work as well known as this one we should not need one?

Robert Hugill

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