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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Water Music (Suite No. 1 in F major, HWV 348; Suite No. 2 in D major, HWV 349; Suite No. 3 in G major, HWV 350) (1717) [50.46]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759) Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351 (1749) [20.06]
Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
rec. St. Anneís Church, Toronto, Canada, 5-8 January 2005
NAXOS 8.557764 [70.52]

 

We know surprisingly little about the first performance of Handelís Water Music. Surviving sources are inconsistent about exactly what happened as the King travelled by barge, dined and then travelled by barge again; we donít even know what music was played. No score survives from that event, so we must hazard a guess as to the instrumentation used. The surviving scores were mainly produced between 1722 and 1743 and not all agree on the exact arrangement of movements.

The work dates from 1717, during Handelís earliest years in London and became deservedly popular. It has traditionally been presented in three suites; the first in F major with prominent horn parts, the second in D major with prominent trumpet parts and the more chamber scale G major suite. It is generally assumed that the music in the G major suite was played whilst the King was dining - on dry land - and often conductors place the G major suite in the middle. On this disc Kevin Mallon has stuck to the traditional ordering of movements.

In the CD booklet, Mallon describes his experiences as a student in Manchester studying an 18th century score of the work with John Eliot Gardiner and how the Air in the Suite in F major was marked presto. Mallon says he has striven to bring this type of lift to all the music and certainly he adopts fast tempi in the overtures and dances. He has also added percussion to the dances. 

The Aradia play the music with style, giving lithe, shapely performances. Their general approach seems to reflect a more chamber view of the work. Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik give a rather bigger-boned performance, the sort that we might have heard drifting across the water in 1717, whereas Mallon gives us lightness and crispness with a light-boned feel, as if we were hearing it in a concert hall. This is not a question of a difference in size between the groups - they are both roughly the same size - but more one of tempo and of approach. Interestingly, Kevin Mallon played second violin on the Tafelmusik recording.

I liked the general orchestral balance and feel of the performance, though I thought that there might be the hint of the odd untidy detail in the orchestral playing.

Mallon and his group pair the Water Music with the equally popular Firework Music that was written towards the end of Handelís career for the celebrations for the Peace of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1749. The two works making a remarkable pair of bookends to Handelís English career. Though he wrote a considerable amount of orchestral music, these two works have been both remarkably influential and remarkably popular.

The Firework Music was written for wind ensemble - at King Georgeís request, there were no fiddles in the ensemble. Though the first performance with fireworks was a bit of a fiasco, with one of the pavilions catching fire, a remarkable 12,000 people attended the public rehearsal of the work in Vauxhall Gardens. Handel added string parts to the piece for a charity performance in aid of Thomas Coramís Foundation and it is in this form that we know it.

I would advise anyone who is interested in the Fireworks Music to investigate one of the recordings which reconstruct the original wind-band version; Sir Charles Mackerras has recorded one and Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert have recorded another. On this disc Mallon and his forces give us the traditional version with string parts. As with the Water Music Mallon emphasises the more chamber aspects of this music. The opening of the Fireworks Music is suitably big-boned, but Mallon provides some charming intimate moments. In La Paix he follows an early manuscript in ascribing the solo to transverse flute, to charming effect.

These are attractive performances and if you are short of the works I have no qualms in recommending the recording at budget price. Some of the more expensive discs give slightly more sophisticated instrumental playing, but the Aradia Ensemble offer us infectious enthusiasm, youth and charm. What more could we ask for?

Robert Hugill

see also Review by David Dunsmore March Bargain of the Month

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