George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
The Musick for the Royal Fireworks HWV351 (1749) [21:20]
Concerti a due cori No. 3 in F major HWV 334 (1747) [16:54]
Concerti a due cori No. 1 in B flat major HWV 332 (1748) [13:58]
Concerti a due cori No. 2 in F major HWV 333 (1748) [15:38]
Zefiro/Alfredo Bernardini
rec. 2006, cloister of the Jesuit College, Catania, Sicily. DDD
ARCANA A386 [68:57]

Originally released in 2008 on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, this recording from 2006 of Handel’s last four instrumental compositions has now been re-issued on Arcana. It was very well received then and this re-issue merits an enthusiastic welcome for its verve and spirit.

The first Grand Public Rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens of the Royal Fireworks Musick to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had “a band of 100 musicians”. Handel must have defied the king’s wishes for only martial instruments at the disastrous official performance six days later, too, as the official score shows strings doubling the twenty-four oboes and twelve bassoons, in addition to nine trumpets, nine horns and three sets of timpani.

Scoring on such a scale indicates that Handel wanted pomp and grandeur. The Zefiro group here consists of only thirty instrumentalists comprising only three trumpets, four horns, four oboes, two bassoons and a contrabassoon plus fourteen strings, timpani and a harpsichord. In these circumstances it is reasonable to wonder whether they can provide enough heft to fulfil the composer’s intentions.

This is by no means a big-scale performance but it still sparkles and dances without sounding the least under-powered. This has much to do with the sonority of the playing, a generally faster beat than in traditional versions and the light, jaunty accenting of dotted rhythms which lifts the music and makes it dance. The strings lean quite heavily on the first beat of triple rhythms. After all, Handel’s chief model here was the French-style suite with an overture and four ensuing dances, so too much pomp and stodginess would be inappropriate. Instead, we hear liberal use by the strings of “notes inégales” and a sense of celebration in the playing. Perhaps a more relaxed and serene atmosphere was fostered and enhanced by the recording being made in the cloisters of the former Jesuit College in Catania. Certainly the fact that the recording venue was outside proved no barrier to producing a beautifully engineered acoustic. Everything is clear and in the instruments are in perfect balance, even the harpsichord. I was hooked from the first imposing drum roll.

I also approve of Bernardini’s choice of sandwiching the statelier of the two concluding minuets between a first run-through then a reprise of the second, more energetic one. This is as opposed to playing them in sequence and thereby emphasising joy over pomp in a manner more apt to this smaller-scale reading.

The “fillers” – if you can call them that, given that “The Musick for the Royal Fireworks” takes up only twenty-five of nearly seventy minutes here – are three “Concerti a due Core”. They make lovely companion pieces to the main fare and are sometimes reminiscent of the grand and stately “Concerti Grossi” Op. 6 written nearly ten years previously. They are of special interest to Handelians who like to play “Name that Tune”, as they are mostly synthesised and adapted excerpts of choral movements from Handel’s previous operas, oratorios and Italian cantatas. The most familiar will be the two numbers from “Messiah” but they are drawn from about a dozen sources including “Esther” and “Semele”. Handel intended them to be used as Intermezzos in his oratorios, so they are generally more exalted in mood but by no means staid. They make ideal concert items even if they do not necessarily represent Handel at his most consistently inspired.

Their main feature is the use of antiphonal choirs of woodwind and brass with the “ripieno” provided by the strings. This results in some love sonorities and interplay between those groups of instruments. The blaring trumpets and braying valveless horns provide special pleasure and are played with great skill. Intonation and articulation are nigh on flawless. Baroque pitch of 415 Hz is used but the fact that Zefiro are thus playing more or less a semitone lower than recordings on modern instruments does not compromise the brilliance of their sound.

The notes are concise and informative and the whole comes in a slim, attractively presented cardboard digipack format.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc which should appeal to any devotee of Handel’s instrumental music and not just for the ebullient performance of the title piece.
Ralph Moore

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