RECORDING OF THE MONTH
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Water Music(1717): Suite in F major, HWV348 [30:10]; Suite in G major, HWV350 [10:16]; Suite in D major, HWV349 [11:01]
Rodrigo, HWV5 (1707): Overture and dances [13:48]
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
rec. MC2, Grenoble, January 2010, DDD
NAÏVE V 5234 [68:00]
It’s an achievement when an artist can take a well-known work and interpret it freshly as if heard for the first time. This Marc Minkowski does with Handel’s Water Music by daring to challenge convention and expectation. Firstly Minkowski chooses to ignore modern musicology, which considers the work a continuous piece or a sequence of movements first in F major or D minor, then a mix of movements in D major and G major. Minkowski follows the earlier performance practice of presenting the Water Music as three suites, respectively grounded in F, G and D major which used to be called the Horn, Flute and Trumpet suites, designating the notable solo instruments. Minkowski also includes the two variant movements in F, HWV331, which are now thought to be a revision by Handel to create a freestanding concerto. If you’d like to hear them as such you need to programme your player to play just track 5 followed by track 12.
One problem with a well-known work like the Water Music is that musically it holds no surprises. You know exactly what’s going to happen. But I was surprised by the freshness of Marc Minkowski’s account. This is founded on superb playing but also partly because Minkowski isn’t afraid to take risks and do things differently. Even if this doesn’t always quite come off, the gamble is stimulating. You experience this right from the start of the Ouverture (tr. 1). Minkowski chooses to understate its introduction so the skipping main body (from 1:11) seems all the merrier. He’s like a spaniel hovering, well behaved at the garden gate before bounding in and running amok among the shrubbery. I’ll compare another recording on period instruments, made in 1996 by the London Classical Players/Roger Norrington (Virgin Classics 391334 2, review). Norrington’s Ouverture begins more assertively but in this he’s more formal while his main body is more studied, less free than Minkowski’s.
The joy of Minkowski’s second movement is the fine variety of decoration by the oboe soloist which makes the arioso personal and seductive, spaciously presented yet smoothly flowing. Norrington’s account is a truer Adagio, taking 2:19 against Minkowski’s 1:59, but thereby seems more calculated in its beauteously reflective but sparer manner. In the third movement horns’ spotlight Minkowski takes us from the drawing room to the farmyard with exuberant, swaggering braying. Norrington is sonorous but deliberate: his clarity of articulation lacks Minkowski’s stimulating sweep. The followingAndante in D minor is given creamy and smooth treatment by Minkowski yet has a sure progression. Norrington is more sober, intimate and more consciously stylish before the da capo of the preceding horns’ spotlight. Minkowski omits this, substituting the expanded F major variant (tr. 5) of the Ouverture which opens the D major suite (tr. 18) and while it’s good to have this, with horns and strings in splendid form, I felt a bit cheated of the da capo. That said, all I need to do is repeat track 3.
The next movement (tr. 6) is marked to be played three times. Minkowski adds to its attractiveness by varying the scoring: horns and strings first time, horns and oboes in the repeat, everyone third time. He then gives us a velvety central section for strings alone before the da capo. Norrington’s presentation is equally lively with a well contrasted silky central section but he only gives us the first section material twice and tutti throughout. The famous Air (tr. 7) is presented by Minkowski in relaxed, courtly and stylish fashion with scoring and structure intelligently varied. The first strain appears on strings alone, quite intimate, then with oboes doubling first violins in the repeat. Then he plays the first half of the second section with the horns’ counterpoint (0:46) without repeat before returning to the second half of the first section (1:10), strings only and then following the pattern as before. Norrington’s Air is more jocular and offhand. He’s more uniform in using tutti instruments throughout, one repeat for both halves of the movement plus a final outing for the first strain. Next, Minkowski’s Minuet (tr. 8) is bracing, pacy and emphasises the percussive element of the string-bass in the tutti scoring yet has a sleek contrasted F minor central section (0:44). Here Norrington is slower, grander, especially in the string body and with more emphasis in the central section on the second violins’ counter-tune.
In the Bourrée and Hornpipe Minkowski plays the first section thrice before proceeding to the second whereas Norrington plays both sections together which I prefer. But Minkowski’s swinging tempo is irresistible, beside which Norrington seems over sedate. The next piece, in D minor, has no tempo indication. Minkowski makes it spacious, smoothly reflective and relaxed at 4:29. Norrington, at 2:43, is more bubbly but thereby also flimsier. Minkowski finishes off his set of F major/D minor pieces with his second bonus, the F major version of the Alla Hornpipe (tr. 12) which is a slightly longer revision of the D major version (tr. 19). Here oboes alternate with horns and there’s an extra rising counter-theme first heard at 0:37 and a glowing tailpiece for the horns at 1:10. Minkowski’s account is pacy yet also sunny and serene.
Minkowski now presents the G major/minor movements as a suite. The first (tr. 13) showcases a smooth flute, with repeats gracefully ornamented to create a continuously flowing expanded melodic line. Norrington’s flautist is fussier, the effect less restful. Minkowski retains the flute in a light and frothy Rigaudon where Norrington offers the usual oboe with a sunnier, more al fresco perspective. Minkowski, on the other hand, offers the pleasing change of timbre of recorder in the G minor movement between appearances of the Rigaudon. That recorder returns daintily in the movement between entries of a steady Minuet from Minkowski where Norrington is fuller in texture but less poised and individual in the recorder’s contribution. Minkowski’s recorder also sparkles a touch more as the C minor filling for two outings of a rustic G major dance with bassoons prominent. Norrington makes this dance the filler but it has more substance than its higher register companion.
Finally Minkowski gives us the D major suite, opening with the original version (tr. 18) of the Ouverture heard earlier, this time featuring spirited alternation between trumpets and horns, even if the harpsichord improvisation before its closing Adagio bars is rather long-winded. Norrington, with a briefer, more stylish violin improvisation, is otherwise more orderly but less exciting. Now comes the original version of the Alla Hornpipe (tr. 19), very bright and with jazzy ornamentation from the trumpets, into their stride by the cadence at 0:54 after which there’s no holding them and you begin to feel sorry for the horns who can’t always quite match them. In comparison Norrington seems rather stiff in manner and stingy in ornamentation. Minkowski continues with an effervescent third appearance of the second strain of the following Minuet and still more high-jinks in the third and fourth tutti appearances of a fast and frisky Bourrée, presented first by trumpets, with oboes and bassoons on the repeat, second by horns and oboes. This has never sounded more exuberant. Before this rip-roaring finale, however, Minkowski parades a Lentement that’s extravagantly slow and stately which gives it something of a halting quality. The effect is that of a grand, splendidly arrayed dignitary, hobbling in procession. Here I prefer the more lilting Norrington, taking 1:26 in comparison with Minkowski’s 2:34.
To complete the CD Minkowski has chosen the little known Overture and suite of dances which open Handel’s opera Rodrigo. Minkowski gives us an Overture (tr. 23) which is sunny, laid-back to a degree yet also with a spring in its step, florid and abounding in rhythmic variety. It sports an Allegro main section (1:09) that’s light and blithely skipping in which passages for violins and oboes blend and separate before a more formal but not too slow close. Minkowski conveys this all with great fluency and a feel for the echoing phrases which are deftly pointed. I compared Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis (Virgin Classics 6958622) who only perform the Overture in their 1997 recording of the complete opera. Curtis is more punctilious in rhythmic articulation but less varied, always performing even runs of quavers as if dotted quavers and semiquavers. His introduction is slower, 1:22 against Minkowski’s 1:09, but less flowing, his Allegro faster but thereby somewhat thrown off.
Now Minkowski gives us the dances too. Well, almost all of them if you consult the 2007 Barenreiter urtext which has a Menuet II that isn’t included here. The first dance is a Gigue, lively and happy with a brief, not at all serious excursion into G minor in its second section. A Sarabande follows, luxuriating in an easy grace of melody Handel would have noted in Purcell, garnished here with touches of lute and harpsichord and with Minkowski using solo instruments for the repeats of both sections to create an idyllic, intimate effect. After this Matelotte is a bubbly Sailors’ dance to set your feet tapping. Then there’s a Menuet (urtext Menuet I), light and neatly done before a genially leaping Bourrée (urtext Bourrée II) in which it’s the oboes and bassoon who have the repeats to themselves having doubled the strings first time. This is followed by a Gavotte, called Bourrée I in the urtext: whatever you call it, a frisky number of tremendous verve and vigorous percussive effects from strings and lute. The concluding Passacaglia has a smooth opening and also close. It’s a static, cosy vision of peace and plenty from which a solo violin escapes. This provides a focus of individual activity, aided and abetted by lots of nifty writing for the lower strings, the oboes and alternation between the soloist and the other violins. Minkowski’s band pursues all this with relish and the set of pieces makes a refreshing close to a disc of vividly realized and thoroughly entertaining performances.
A disc of vividly realized and thoroughly entertaining performances.