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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) [20:12]
Water Music (1717): Suite in F major [27:27]; Suite in D/G major [19:50]
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. St Barnabas Church, North Finchley, January 1989, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, January 1997 (Water). DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Here’s the Music for the Royal Fireworks on period instruments as King George II wanted it, played by 24 oboes, 11 bassoons plus 1 contrabassoon, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 sets of timpani, a set of double drums and a number of side drums, four being used here. The Ouverture begins with jubilant, festive bounce, turbocharged by the added boost of side drums at the start, a reasonable extension of their authorized later use in La Rejouissance. There’s great swelling in the trumpet phrases echoed by horns. The repeat of the introduction is softer, its closing cadence briefly yet pleasingly decorated. The Allegro main body (tr. 1 4:16) is jaunty if not specially fast and the semiquaver cascades from 5:24 are steadily articulated by the oboes but less exultantly than they would be by strings wanted by Handel but not George II. The Lentement (7:25) isn’t especially slow but the contrast of calm is sufficient and pleasing with Robert King going for mellifluousness rather than excitement. You can savour the cantabile oboes and then trumpets burgeoning in a rising scale.

With his vast authentic period forces King is only capped by Le Concert Spirituel/Herve Niquet (Glossa GCDSA 921616) recorded in 2002. Niquet provides what Handel wanted but probably didn’t get, all the instruments above plus 42 strings. He admits the strings wouldn’t be heard much but they do seem to add an edge to the rhythm and inspire more dexterous wind articulation. Niquet’s Ouverture introduction is faster, 1:30 against King’s 2:02, but less grand. It has great brio but is weakened by being followed by an over-the-top 32 seconds of improvised drum riffs before the closing cadence. Niquet’s Allegro has more of a sense of projection and progression than King’s. His strings aided semiquaver runs really skip.

In King’s Bourree, chirpier though less refined than Niquet’s, you appreciate the neatly balanced oboes with the equivalent of the second violins as prominent as the firsts. To La Paix King brings a pleasant lilt with horns playing softly above oboes and bassoons. The cadences and half cadences still bristle with trills but this is a more intimate, soft focussed sound and the intimacy is underlined by King’s leaving out the horns in the repeats. Niquet is broader and puffier in tone with intonation less secure. King’s La rejouissance has a spruce military discipline in its pointed rhythm where Niquet is more bright and fiery. In the closing two Minuets I prefer King’s placing of the D minor one as a contrasting interlude between statements of the D major to Niquet’s reverse order.

For the Water Music King uses a smaller body of period instruments, more appropriate to an indoor chamber performance than the outdoor original, but strings are included for this work. He has 6 first violins, 5 second violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses, 2 players for theorbo and guitar, 2 for harpsichord and organ, 6 oboes, 3 bassoons, 2 flutes, 2 recorders, 2 horns and 2 trumpets. There’s no loss in liveliness of projection and a gain in transparency of texture.

King’s Overture is smooth and honeyed, the same number of oboes blending well with the first violins and ensuring an overall creamy tone while the concertino violins are neat. The following oboe solo movement is tastefully decorated by Katharina Spreckelsen within the overall expressive but fairly objective line, making for a calm interlude. I compared the London Classical Players/Roger Norrington recording made in 1996 (Virgin Classics 391334 2, review). He uses a slightly larger orchestra of 8 first, 8 second violins, 5 violas, 4 cellos, 3 double basses, 2 players for harpsichord, 6 oboes, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets. Norrington’s Overture is more forthright, a little more formal to begin with then perkier. There’s more poise and expectation about the opening of the oboe solo movement and Anthony Robson decorates with more ostentation which is more individual and involving. 
In the Allegro which comes next and showcases the horns King is faster than Norrington and shows more brio, even with or perhaps because of fewer horns, with braying trills fully relished. He makes the D minor Andante filling (tr. 8 2:25) highly contrasted, expressively mulled over, arguably overmuch so there seems to be a degree of calculation about the placement of the contrapuntal effects and contrast between woodwind and string groups. Norrington is more equable here so you appreciate the crafting of the counterpoint and silvery violin tone more reflectively.

King is bubbly in the following Minuet with cheery horns’ echoing effects, bristling trills and a graceful middle section. Norrington is brisker, 2:36 against King’s 2:55, and thereby more festive. To the famous Air King brings a relaxed, easy flow where Norrington prefers a more emphatic strutting manner. In the second section King matches the horn counterpoint well with the oboe and violin blend but omits the repeat. Norrington not only provides this but then repeats the first section, though the authority for this is unclear. To the next Minuet with its opening section for wind instruments alone King brings a sonorous clarity with a touch of formality which allows him to find more warmth in the F minor Trio where Norrington is more pensive. King’s Bourree has more pace and edge, 1:02 against Norrington’s 1:34 though the latter remains light and shining. Similarly in the Hornpipe King has a fine spring whereas Norrington is more relaxed with a lighter emphasis on the minim beats, taking 1:36 in comparison with King’s 1:17.

However, in the freestanding movement in D minor (tr. 14) it’s King who’s quite measured and contemplative, yet detail is clarified thereby and is very engaging. You appreciate how the elements fit together and King’s moment of silence before the final Adagio is telling. Norrington, taking 2:43 against King’s 4:19, offers a chirpier, less self-conscious celebration of the counterpoint. This piece marks the end of the sequence entitled Suite in F major, HWV348 in this Hyperion recording, followed by the Suite in D/G major, HWV349/350. I was brought up on recordings like John Eliot Gardiner’s which separated the D, called the Trumpet Suite and G major called the Flute Suite but current musicology and the 2007 revision of the Hallische Handel-Ausgabe urtext favours the order followed by Norrington and King which mixes trumpet and flute movements. Furthermore it argues for a totally continuous presentation with no distinct suites.

Anyway the next two movements are in a bright D major festooned with trumpets and echoing horns. In the first (tr. 15) I feel King is a touch too sturdy. Norrington has a more convincing impetus and where King repeats phrases slightly softer Norrington provides more panache with extra ornamentation. In the second, the well-known Alla Hornpipe (tr. 16) King has more forward thrust initially yet also makes more of an appreciable contrast in the central section (0:58) between its melodic elements and first violins’ running quavers.

The next two movements are in G major and spotlight the flute for the first time. King’s approach to the first is meditative, with a chamber like intimacy. His flautist Rachel Brown chastely abstains from ornamenting the repeats. King’s second movement is lighter yet has sufficient pep. Norrington is smoother in the first movement. His flautist, Lisa Beznosiuk, provides imaginative and attractively florid ornamentation on the repeats while his second movement has more zip.

King makes the following Lentement a sedate luxuriating, the only time the horns gently echo the trumpets, yet the whole creamily and regally full toned. Norrington gives it more shape and thrust, but his faster approach makes for less contrast with the ensuing Bourree which still doesn’t have King’s impetus and gusto. Norrington, however, is more generous with repeats and thereby clarifes the contrasting scoring: first playing trumpets and strings, second playing oboes, horns and bassoons, third playing tutti. King makes the repeats of the first playing in the second playing scoring and omits the second playing. King is similarly concise in the final movement, the Menuet (Coro). His approach here is that of a sumptuous yet decorous bowing out with only two playthroughs, the first trumpets and strings, the second smoothly blending in oboes, horns and bassoons. Here Norrington, more dashing and sprightly, retains the second playthrough as indicated for oboes, horns and bassoons before a really festive tutti close, a cumulating weight King misses.

Before that final movement comes a sequence featuring recorder solo. King’s Minuet 1 is cool but stylish, his Minuet 2 where the recorder enters of crystalline brightness yet light elegance with judicious yet gradually expanded ornamentation. Norrington projects Minuet 1 in edgier fashion. His Minuet 2 is jauntier but then he offers a bonus in returning to Minuet 1, now smoother, as if tempered by Minuet 2. King’s Country Dance 1 is light and feathery, allowing a pleasing contrast in the rustic bassoon led Country Dance 2 in which King also brings spice to the violins’ cross rhythms. Norrington’s Country Dance 1 has an edgy scintillance, his Country Dance 2 has more warmth and density of tone.

This King CD illuminatingly distinguishes between the scoring and scale of the two works but comparison with Niquet shows that Handel was right in wanting strings for the Fireworks Music. Both respond well to smaller scale performance but the Water Music doesn’t work with the massive forces of the Fireworks Music. Niquet uses the same forces and sounds bloated. In the Water Music King has more contrasted tempi while Norrington is more generous in repeats. To conclude, King’s is an excellent choice if you want a second recording of these works for contrast but Norrington offers a first choice which is more attractive in its consistency of approach.  

Michael Greenhalgh

All reviews on Musicweb of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Works


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