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Water and Fireworks

available at Amazon
Handel, Water Music / Music for the Royal Fireworks, Le Concert des Nations, J. Savall

(re-released on July 8, 2008)
Alia Vox AVSA 9860 | 73'51"

Online scores:
HWV 348-350 | HWV 351

available at Amazon
C. Hogwood, Handel: Water music and Music for the royal fireworks
As the historically informed performance specialist Christopher Hogwood put it in his 2005 study of Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, these works were, "as intended, popular from the first and have never lagged since, and for that reason are sometimes taken, quite wrongly, as being the epitome of [Handel's] style; but they are far from being typical of Handel," being as they were, "politically generated, occasional in every sense and peripheral to Handel's main goals" of composing dramatic vocal music. Hogwood also surmises that Handel saw in the suite only "its balletic implications," which captures most of what the Baroque suite was all about, the infusion of dance rhythms in ear-pleasing musical phrases, even if the dances themselves were sometimes out of date.

For that reason this now-classic recording, originally released by Jordi Savall on the Astrée label and now remastered as a hybrid SACD for Alia Vox, is at the top of my list for both works. Hogwood's own recording with the Academy of Ancient Music is also a fine option, priced lower for two CDs, which include Handel's incidental music for The Alchymist, the double horn concerti, and more (L'Oiseau-Lyre, re-released by Decca). For even less, one can have the 2-CD set of the late Charles Mackerras's recording of the two works, plus the Coronation Anthems (EMI). The fine recording from Tafelmusik (Sony) contains only Water Music, paired in this case with the overture and dance music for Il Pastor Fido. It is Savall, however, who has best captured the various sides of these works, from the regal and ceremonial (with blustery brass and martial, snappy percussion) to the more intimate and balletic. The tempi are crisp but not always so rushed as to edge toward mania as some HIP conductors seem to prefer. Embellishments are added tastefully and not excessively, and Savall varies the instrumentation, which along with gracious phrasing gives this performance interest even for such familiar works.

Handel composed Water Music for a royal party hosted by King George I on July 17, 1717, when he made a "progress" down the Thames from Whitehall where he took ship, heading toward Chelsea. An ensemble of "50 instruments" (reported in the Daily Courant two days later -- Savall's ensemble is slightly smaller, with one Pierre Hantaï at the harpsichord) played Handel's music a total of three times as the party went and returned, from a more crowded second barge that floated alongside the royal barge. Although composed much later, for an occasion in 1749, Fireworks conveniently provides an example of a similar ceremonial work from much later in Handel's life. Water Music does not exist in a manuscript score, making it difficult to resolve the differences among the secondary copies as to the order of movements, and Handel reworked Fireworks several times, with all sorts of editorial problems. Hogwood reviews all of these issues and has marshaled every bit of documentary evidence he could find about the works, including payment records for the barges and archival bits about some of the individual musicians involved. Savall's solution, to reorder the Water Music pieces into two contrasting suites, is as elegant as any other.

In one of the highlights of the upcoming fall season, Jordi Savall will appear at the Kennedy Center next month, with Montserrat Figueras, Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, and the Mexican chamber group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo (September 27, 8 pm) in a program called El Nuevo Mundo: Folías Criollas. This American tour will introduce audiences to the group's new CD of the same name (review forthcoming), which is in some ways a continuation of their earlier disc Villancicos y Danzas Criollas.


Lindemann said...

I just went out and bought this. Three tracks in, it's amazing. So thanks.

Charles T. Downey said...

It just keeps getting better. Glad you like it!