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George Frideric 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)
Teresa 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] 
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Robert Hugill 

Reviews of Fireworks and Water Music on Musicweb



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