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HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Music for the Royal Fireworks (arr. Mackerras)
(1749) [25.49] (1)
Water Music (1717) [53.96] (2)
Coronation Anthems (1727) [39.48] (3)
Dixit Dominus(1707) [36.55] (4)
Zylis-Gara (soprano) (4)
Janet Baker (mezzo) (4)
Martin Lane (counter-tenor) (4)
Robert Tear (tenor) (4)
John Shirley-Quirk (baritone) (4)
Choir of Kings College, Cambridge (3, 4)
London Symphony Orchestra (1)
Prague Chamber Orchestra (2)
English Chamber Orchestra (3, 4)
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor) (1, 2)
Philip Ledger (conductor) (3)
David Willcocks (conductor) (4)
rec. (1) 8 October 1976, 19 December 1976, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road,
London; (2) 1-4 February 1978, Dablice Studio, Prague; (3) 21-23 July
1982, Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge; (4) 3 August 1965, Chapel
of Kings College, Cambridge. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 2643382 [79.45 + 76.43]
In 1958, Charles Mackerras gathered together some of the best
wind players in London for a recording session which started
at 11 pm - necessary because most players had evening commitments.
The resulting session produced the famous recording of Mackerras's
reconstruction of the original wind version of Handel's
Fireworks Music. He used a version deploying 24 oboes,
9 horns, 9 trumpets, 12 bassoon and 3 pairs of kettledrums.
This 1958 recording has been issued on the Testament label
and should be essential listening for all Handelians.
Opening this EMI set of some of Handel's greatest hits we
have Mackerras's 1978 recording of the Fireworks Music,
still in its original version, this time centred on forces from
the London Symphony Orchestra. This account benefits from modern
sound and is well worth the price of this set. Mackerras's
speed for the Overture is extremely expansive, reflecting the
large forces and the open air nature of the performance.
The original first performance, at the fireworks celebrating
the peace of Aix La Chappelle, was a complete disaster. But
Handel had given open rehearsals of the work at the Vauxhall
Pleasure Gardens and these had drawn stupendous crowds. Handel,
ever the entrepreneur, re-worked the music for ordinary baroque
orchestral forces and it is in this form that the piece gained
currency. But there is something grandly wonderful about the
sound that this wind and brass version gives - it is really
music to uplift the soul.
Mackerras includes ornamentation in his parts so that we get
some beautifully elaborate lines from the oboes. And the trumpeters
are sterling in their stamina in the face of the high trumpet
parts. Everyone should listen to this recording at least once
in their lives.
Mackerras's account of the Water Music with the Prague
Chamber Orchestra is rather less than essential listening. This
was recorded in 1978 and Mackerras has gone on to record the
suites again with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. There is
much to enjoy and Mackerras works his usual magic with persuading
modern instrument players to create a period feel. Though the
strings play resolutely on the string, there is no attempt at
the sort of crisp articulation you might expect from a group
displaying complete period practice. In fact, stylistically
much of the playing would not be out of place in Mozart. To
many people that is not a bad thing. The string players do not
use too much vibrato, which is something of a relief.
The second disc in the set is devoted to other recordings which
EMI seem to have found in their archives. Philip Ledger's
1982 recording of the Coronation Anthems and David Willcocks'
1965 recording of Dixit Dominus, both with the Choir
of Kings College Cambridge and the English Chamber Orchestra.
Now Philip Ledger conducting the Coronation Anthems with
Kings choir is never going to be uninteresting. But the choristers
do not seem to have been on their best form. Even though Ledger's
speeds are moderate rather than fast, the inner parts have an
untidiness which is unsatisfactory. That said, there are beautiful
moments especially from the trebles and the diction is admirable.
In common with most recordings, the forces with which Ledger
has recorded the anthems are quite modest. Newspaper accounts
of the coronation imply that Handel conducted a substantial
ensemble - though 144 instruments to 50 singers must surely
be wrong. It would be interesting to hear the work sung with
far larger forces; surely Handel had the greater massiveness
of the original performance in mind when he wrote the pieces.
Certainly the sure fire hit that is Zadok the Priest
sounds a little too polite and is certainly not as uplifting
as I would have liked.
To my mind Willcocks' recording of Dixit Dominus rather
shows its age too much. It sounds a little too slow and steady.
Even so, it was probably was rather closer to cutting edge at
the time it was issued, though the Gramophone's original
review is less then wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Though Janet
Baker is always a pleasure to listen to, I would rather she
was doing something else and shows some strain in the second
soprano part. The other soloists are admirable in their way,
except for counter-tenor Martin Lane who seems a little low
powered. The choral singing is neat and clean, but nothing on
this recording thrills me. There are many more recent recordings
that I would rather listen to and I am not convinced that it
is special enough to have historic interest.
The CD book contains a short article giving essential background
to the works but there are no texts.
Perhaps this set is greater than the sum of its parts. None
of the recordings is bad and if you are not dead set on period
instrument performance, then perhaps there will be much to enjoy.
But Mackerras's Fireworks music apart, there is nothing
here that has not been done better elsewhere.
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