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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Water Music
Giuseppe TORELLI (1658-1709)

Trumpet Concerto in D *
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

2-Trumpet Concerto in C, RV 537 *°
HANDEL

2-Trumpet Concerto in D, HWV 335a *°
Roger Delmotte (trumpet)*, Arthur Haneuse (trumpet)°
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
Recorded November 1960 in the Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
WESTMINSTER: The Legacy 471 276-2 [73:26]


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I heard this Water Music on the radio in the late 1970s and found it weird and rather wonderful. The idea seemed to be to play the fast ones slow (both Hornpipes have a dainty, rather hesitant gait), the slow ones fast (the Air in F is a bouncy, jaunty affair), and to toss a coin to decide whether to take the medium ones very fast or very slow (usually the latter, such as the long drawn-out no.10 in D minor, and the performance ends with the Minuet in D treated as a broad patriotic hymn). But, and it is an important ‘but’, having started with the premise of the strangest tempi imaginable, Scherchen then obtains such refinement of phrasing, such rhythmic poise, such élan in the fast movements, that you begin to wonder if he isn’t right after all.

This is how I heard it some twenty-five years ago. Does it sound any different now? Well, a lot of water has gone under the Handelian bridge since then, let alone since 1960 when the record was made. In those days Beecham was still around to ply his "Love in Bath" and other Handel arrangements, and George Szell rolled up in London to record the Water Music and the Royal Fireworks Music in the Harty arrangements (of which Sir Malcolm Sargent had also made an early stereo coupling) without anyone seeing anything wrong with it (maybe because there wasn’t). The Sargent was issued in 1959, the Szell in 1962. And yet by that time the Boyd Neel version from the early 1950s was growing old on the Ace of Clubs label, and that had shown there was another way to do it, with the original orchestration, a small group, flowing tempi and springy rhythms. If Sargent and Szell remained unrepentant, the message was not lost on other conductors of international fame. To Eduard van Beinum goes the merit of having recorded the Harty arrangement on an early Decca LP, and then later recording the original score for Philips. Though in Berlin Karajan continued to give Handel the full works (but I think I’m right in saying he never recorded the Water Music), in 1963 Rafael Kubelik took what sounds to be a fairly reduced group of the Berlin Philharmonic into the studio for a reading very much in the Boyd Neel mould. This was highly regarded in its day; turning to it again now I found it admirable but not awfully interesting since, having set a sensible tempo for each movement, he just lets it play itself without any further intervention, and the staccato bass lines sometimes chug. Whatever you think of Scherchen, he makes you sit up and listen.

Of course, since then we’ve had a long series of versions on original instruments, and at first the idea seemed to be to take Boyd Neel’s objectivity to almost Stravinskian extremes, with jabbed-out staccatos and an apparent fear of anything so romantic as a nicely phrased line. But things have been changing, and some original instruments groups (as well as conductors such as Harnoncourt who first made their names in such groups) now go in for personalised interpretation, crescendi and diminuendi and a manicured style of phrasing as extreme as any romantic conductor’s, but without creating a romantic effect (I am thinking, for example, of the Galuppi concerto under René Jacobs included in Vivica Genaux’s "Arias for Farinelli" disc): Where does this get them? About where Scherchen had already got in 1960, I’d say. Plus ça change. So this long disregarded disc can now come into its own as a prime recommendation if you want modern instruments and a challenging, anti-romantic approach, especially when the stereo sound comes up so well. Just a few strictures; the trumpets are occasionally audibly in difficulty with some of Scherchen’s swifter tempi (this didn’t worry me), and the harpsichordist, very clearly recorded, has a tendency to play about half a beat behind the others. This did temper my enjoyment, I must say.

No such problem with the trumpet concertos since he doesn’t play! I’m afraid modern ears will find the effect of just strings without continuo a little spongy, however springy Scherchen’s lively tempi may be, but he extracts a profundity of utterance from the slow movement of the Torelli that you’d never imagine. Nowadays we know that baroque trumpets were lighter in tone than their modern counterparts, more like oboes, so this very clean and well-tuned playing may seem heavy in timbre. If this is not a problem for you, the actual playing is excellent. These concertos are the baroque part of a disc that also contained the Haydn Concerto.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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