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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Water Music (1717): Suite in F major [22:46]; Suite in D major [18:01]
Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) [27:45]
London Classical Players/Roger Norrington
rec. Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London, 9-12 January 1996. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 391334 2 [68:45]

Roger Norrington’s is a Water Music that’s going places from the start. There’s a strong forward pulse to the opening section of the Overture of the F major suite followed by a brisk and lively Allegro with assertive concertante violins to match.

I shall compare another performance on period instruments, the English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner recorded in 1991 (Philips 4647062), which has the same coupling as this Norrington CD. Gardiner’s introduction is more stately and Allegro more darting, though less vigorous, with a more intimate concertante and stylishly perspectived recording. EMI’s recording for Norrington is up front and impactful, arguably more appropriate to this outdoor music. You’re certainly given the best seats on the water, right alongside the musicians’ barge. In the Overture the impression you’re left with is one of total assurance and verve. This makes for a telling contrast in tempo and mood in the following Adagio (tr. 2) with the oboe’s melody, tastefully ornamented, very deliberate and rather coy, the whole atmosphere suddenly spacious and contemplative. Gardiner is faster here, 1:55 against Norrington’s 2:16, with a smoother, more sinuously beguiling, you could say sexy, oboe.

It’s all change again in the next Allegro and the entrance of the bristling, sonorous horns. Here Norrington adopts a comfortable pace, 2:36 against Gardiner’s 2:24 in the opening section, which allows for more equality of interchange with the strings’ echoing and generally more clarity of counterpoint and scoring. Gardiner’s horns are more showy and rasping, more exciting, but Norrington’s prove more satisfying for repeated playings. The D minor Andante filling (tr. 3 2:37) Norrington makes quite intense in projecting its melody, though it’s relatively reposeful; Gardiner is cooler. There’s no shortage of pace in Norrington’s following jaunty Minuet (tr. 4) with its horns’ echo passages at the end of its strains, while the strings’ Trio is willowy without loss of momentum. Gardiner’s Minuet is lightly articulated, his gentle Trio sweetly lilting.

I like the character that Norrington gives the famous Air, somewhat impish with a confident strut. In the opening section he has the oboes doubling the violins but leaves them out in the second section (tr. 5 1:20) so the glowing horns’ additions, descant and underpinning in turn, the real reason for that section, are clearer. He reprises the opening section as a da capo. Gardiner brings to the Air, more traditionally, a quiet, flowing unassuming grace and neatness. Both Norrington and Gardiner present the next Minuet first time as a solo for the horns before everyone joins in. In the Trio (tr. 6 1:09) Norrington gives the inner melody on second violins and violas prominence, so the first violin’s outer melody appears as a lightly gliding counterpoint above. Nevertheless both melodic lines are firmer than Gardiner’s where the outer melody is shadowy. The Bourée (tr. 7) from Norrington is first presented by strings, then by oboes and bassoons, then by all, so what starts light and engaging gradually grows more vigorous. Norrington brings character to the Hornpipe (tr. 8) by gentle insistence on its rhythmic contrasts. Gardiner links Bourée and Hornpipe by having just the strings and wind presentations of the individual dances then that of all instruments by both dances in turn. Finally the freestanding movement in D minor (tr. 9), is delivered by Norrington with a cheery pace and stylish projection. This CD terms it ‘finale’ and Norrington certainly plays it like one, with a compelling momentum, at 2:38 much faster and more celebratory than Gardiner at 3:24. On the other hand Gardiner’s more probing, reflective, you could say Bach like, approach is more suited to the minor key and of a stately quality.

The Overture of the D major suite from Norrington is all bright and sonorous antiphonal interchange of trumpets on the left and horns on the right, a contest in which both acquit themselves with equal relish and then come together exultantly before the quiet closing chords are stylishly embellished by solo violin. This is a brief interlude of calm before more resplendent brass interchange in the famous Alla Hornpipe, firmly and regally presented with an alert, shining central section from oboes, bassoons and strings. Gardiner’s D major suite gains in power and magnificence from the addition of an improvised part for kettledrums, a standard baroque practice when trumpets were used in ceremonial music. Norrington’s CD booklet note gives no explanation of their absence but in his note to The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock 1983 recording Anthony Hicks argues they wouldn’t have easily fitted on the musicians’ barge and ‘the occasional use of the violins as a high ‘bass’ to the trumpets’ suggests Handel didn’t expect them to be available. I’m not convinced, but if this is so, might it be pragmatism rather than the ideal? For me the movements sound much better with drums. 

Now with Norrington comes a complete contrast. We get a Minuet which is the first of 5 movements in G much more lightly scored without brass and sometimes with flute or recorder. Gardiner performs all these movements as a separate suite in G which I personally prefer as they seem to me indoor music, arguably part of that played to the King when he disembarked at Chelsea for supper before his return water trip. In his scholarly booklet note with this Virgin CD Anthony Hicks argues mixing the movements in D and G matches the earliest sources and makes ‘a more satisfactory playing order’. But those earliest sources were arrangements for keyboard, where contrasts of timbre are less distinctive and in his 2001 article in the New Grove Hicks admits ordering movements by key had become a practice by the 1730s. Anyway Norrington presents the Minuet with a flute providing a creamy topping for the first violin line it doubles and elaborately ornaments the repeats. This is honouring formality and then imaginatively escaping from it. I also like Norrington’s patient expounding of the second section. In comparison Gardiner is just polite. Two Rigaudons follow from Norrington, the second, in G minor (tr. 13 1:08) no less vigorous than the first, which gives it a kind of refined turbulence. Norrington is swifter, 2:34 against Gardiner’s 3:11, and racier.

Next from Norrington, the Lentement, is from the D major movements, heavyweight pomp with beaming horn and trumpet tone. Gardiner is gentler in this, which matches its quieter second section better. Norrington’s following Bourée is crisper with trumpets and strings first time, horns, oboes and bassoons second time, everyone third time. Now back to G minor with a smoothly contoured first Minuet for strings offset by a second Minuet with a scintillating leaping line in which descant recorders double the first violin, very trim and disciplined rhythmically though the harmonies and tone are softer. Norrington has more swing in the first Minuet than Gardiner and is perkier in the second where Gardiner is rather wistful. Next, the last movements in G, a first Country Dance vivaciously treated by Norrington whose tune with recorders doubling violins seems to chase its own tail while the second Dance (tr. 17 0:27) spotlights the middle line on second violins, violas and bassoons, to which the first violins’ upper line seems to be no more than a lightly applied counterpoint. Gardiner balances the upper and middle lines more equally. Norrington’s finale is then the Trumpet Minuet in D, presented first by trumpets and strings, second by horns, oboes and bassoons, third by everyone to round things off with full confidence and brilliant blaze.

Norrington also makes the Music for the Royal Fireworks a sunny celebration with the antiphony between horns and trumpets again the highlight, while the strings sheenily underpin the oboes and bassoons. He brings a swing to the Overture’s Larghetto introduction, taking 1:56 in comparison with the more majestic Gardiner’s 2:06, and an Adagio close with all the brass bristling rather than Gardiner’s solo trumpet decoration. Norrington’s Allegro section (tr. 19 2:11) begins lightly though firmly rhythmically and gradually and inexorably, indeed surprisingly quickly, becomes weightier. The faster Gardiner, overall 7:27 against Norrington’s 7:47, now has more skipping rhythms and he becomes more vigorous as he progresses. Norrington emphasises clarity of texture and consistency of phrasing and shaping. You then marvel at the demonstration how the same material can be presented in the central section calmly only to catch fire again, Norrington reserving the full impact of volleys of timpani, unquestionably present in this work, for these passages of swelling sumptuousness. The overall effect is totally exhilarating.

In the other movements Norrington shows more freshness of projection than Gardiner, which brings more vitality. Gardiner’s Bourée is silky and smooth but Norrington’s has more bite to it. Gardiner’s La paix is quieter and more lilting where Norrington’s is at first a little weighed down by its glowing density of brass tone; but his repeats bring more variety in featuring flutes rather than oboes. Norrington’s La rejouissance sparkles more than Gardiner’s on trumpets and drums, repeated on horns and bassoons, with everyone the third time plus a rather dominating side drum. The closing D major Minuet provides a weightier, more formal celebration with the same pattern of contrasted scoring. In addition the D minor Minuet (tr. 23 0:39) is used as its Trio, first time allowing flutes another appearance, second time, after the second playing of the D major Minuet, displayed by just strings with a veiled sheen. I prefer this to Gardiner’s separate presentation of the D minor Minuet before the D major.

To sum up, clarity of texture is here combined with freshness of projection and immediacy of recording which make these mightily well played performances extremely engaging. The horn playing in particular and execution of trills is terrific. But if you prefer the Water Music as three suites rather than two, you’ll have the play the tracks in the order 12, 13, 16, 17 to hear the Suite in G and then the tracks in the order 10, 11, 18, 14 and 15 to hear the Suite in D major. And if you like to hear timpani in the latter suite, hard luck!

Michael Greenhalgh


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